WORCESTER — The Board of Election Commissioners began laying the groundwork for a public hearing process on Thursday that will lead to the drawing of the school board’s first district maps.
There are still things that need to fall into place, but the council has scheduled four public hearings Thursday through early March on how six new school board districts will be drawn ahead of the 2023 municipal elections. .
The process is part of a decree of consent that the city entered into with a group of individuals and organizations that sued the city last year. The executive order will settle the lawsuit, which alleged that the general system of electing school board members violated the Voting Rights Act and diluted the vote of black and Latino voters in the city.
Several aspects of the decree have already been implemented; the city council decided that the new structure of the school committee will consist of six district members, two general members and the mayor. Two of these districts, according to the decree, will be majority-minority.
To amend the charter, the city had to file a petition for internal rule with the legislature; that bill, city attorney Michael Traynor told the board on Thursday, is making its way through the state house.
The executive order gives the Elections Commission until March 21 to approve the new school board district boundaries; Traynor told the board he will discuss the elasticity of that date with the plaintiffs on an upcoming call; he said that depending on when a 90-day clock is ticked to the filing of autonomy legislation, the timeline could change.
The council voted Thursday to approve four upcoming dates for public hearings: Thursday, February 17, Thursday, February 24, Thursday, March 3 and Thursday, March 10. All meetings will be at 5:30 p.m.
Traynor told council on Thursday that an outstanding decision that will need to be finalized before the precinct process begins is the selection of an independent expert approved by both the city and the plaintiffs.
Traynor said the hope was to keep Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford professor and national election law expert who played a supporting role with the city as it decided which election model to choose for the school board. Persily has done similar work at Lowell, and Traynor said he would be able to catch up quickly if plaintiffs agreed he should oversee the process. He said that decision could be made before the first hearing on February 17.
Commissioner John Stewart asked what would happen if council had a disagreement with the expert on any part of the process; the lawyer clarified to the council that for this initial slicing process, the independent expert will have the final say on the appearance of the cards. He said that in particular, the drawing of minority-majority maps will rely heavily on expert knowledge.
Commissioner Richard Duffy asked how it all came to this. Traynor explained that the lawsuit alleged that the full plurality system used by school board elections did not give certain groups of black and Latino voters an equal chance to elect members of their choice, thus diluting their votes. He said the city council decided not to fight the lawsuit, but also did not admit to a violation of the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act.
Duffy said he understood that, but asked what would happen if Scottish or Jewish voters in the town wanted to do the same.
Traynor explained that the threshold for proving violations of the Voting Rights Act is high and that plaintiffs must show that geographically compact blocks of voters who have the same desire to support certain candidates are unable to elect whoever they want to power.
Commissioner Winifred Octave told Duffy that in Worcester the generalized system resulted in most members being elected from the west side of town.
“It looks like what they want is a bit of fairness, especially with minority-majority ridings,” Octave said.
Traynor and City Clerk Nikolin Vangjeli reminded council Thursday that those discussions have already taken place and the city has decided on the current course of action.
And Traynor, in response to a question from resident David Coyne, explained that if the city fails to meet its obligations under the consent decree, plaintiffs can take the city to court and the federal judge hearing the case could take control of the process.
“The city agreed to do it,” Coyne said. “If the city fails, we lose influence to even be a participant. It’s important for us to make sure that happens.”
Traynor said the city is far enough along that the risk of failure is unlikely, as long as the council sees its role as part of a collaborative relationship in the process.