Black and Latino voters and racial justice groups sued Massachusetts’ second-largest city on Monday, alleging its system for electing Worcester School Committee members violates both the federal Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution.
The suit, filed in US District Court, claims that the all at-large election system dilutes the vote of communities of color and deprives them of an equal opportunity to select candidates to represent them.
Though Hispanic and Black students comprise more than 60 percent of the school population, not a single Hispanic or Black member is elected to the seven-member Worcester School Committee, the suit states. Since 2009, only one candidate of color has succeeded in winning election to the School Committee, and she served only one term.
The majority-white electorate “has all but extinguished minorities’ opportunities to elect their chosen representatives,” the suit states. The lack of representation results in a lack of responsiveness, said one of the plaintiffs.
“We have serious problems in the school system, and when we bring it up, they refuse to acknowledge there are equity issues or disparities in the school system, they refuse to make policy changes and they refuse to work with the community,” said Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, executive director of Worcester Interfaith.
That nonprofit, which works with faith-based and community organizations on racial and economic justice, is suing the city along with the Worcester branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and eight individually named city voters.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty, the city clerk and manager, and all members of the City Council and School Committee and board of elections commissioners are named in the suit. A city spokesman issued a statement acknowledging the suit, but did not offer specifics.
“As it is the City of Worcester’s policy not to comment on pending or ongoing litigation, we do not have a comment at this time,” the statement said.
The case is being handled by the Lawyers for Civil Rights, which brought a similar case against the city of Lowell in 2017. That case compelled the city to restructure its electoral system for this year’s municipal elections, providing ward-level representation on both the City Council and the School Committee.
The Worcester case similarly alleges that the School Committee’s elections are unrepresentative because they allow a white majority — which votes as a bloc — to drown out the voices of voters of color, who coalesce around different candidates. At-large electoral systems have been challenged or abandoned on similar grounds by Congress and numerous voting jurisdictions in Massachusetts and nationwide.
Worcester is the last large Massachusetts city to elect its School Committee through an all at-large plurality electoral system. Other cities and towns have moved to a system that includes at least some district-based seats. In a district-based system, a city is divided into a number of districts, and residents of each of those districts vote for their own representative on the School Committee.
Worcester is a majority-white city, with 56.6 percent of residents identifying as White and non-Latino, according to census estimates. But the proportion of white residents has shrunk 30 percent over the past 40 years, and its growing diversity is not reflected on the School Committee. The committee is comprised of six elected members and the mayor, who serves by virtue of his position.
In the most recent municipal elections of 2019, the six winners were the top six vote-getters in the 10 whitest precincts, the suit states. Candidates of color won support from the 10 most diverse precincts but were unable to secure enough votes citywide.
Conversely, the Worcester City Council elects some members by district and reflects greater diversity. Three of the 11 members of council are people of color. Dr. Sarai Rivera is serving her fifth two-year term as a City Councilor representing a district that is 49 percent Black and Latino.
The lawsuit asserts that Rivera’s success demonstrates that district-based voting would strengthen the ability of voters to elect their candidate of choice.
And the suit claims that an unrepresentative School Committee is unresponsive to the needs of Black and Latino students. Hispanic and Latino students are disciplined and receive more severe discipline at double the rate of their white peers, the suit states, but community members’ complaints about bias have gone unaddressed.