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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Worcester won’t fight lawsuit aimed at diversifying school committee

Tahmi Johnston, left, and Carly Henderson, both 17, raised their hands after delivering a speech about the racism they experienced in high school at a Worcester "Justice for George Floyd" rally in June 2020.
Tahmi Johnston, left, and Carly Henderson, both 17, raised their hands after delivering a speech about the racism they experienced in high school at a Worcester "Justice for George Floyd" rally in June 2020.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

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By deciding not to fight a voting rights lawsuit, Worcester’s elected officials became the latest in Massachusetts to abandon an electoral method that constituents called discriminatory.

Worcester’s City Council committed earlier this month to changing the city’s all-at-large system of electing School Committee members in response to a suit filed in federal court in February.

“The trend is clear, which is toward more representative government and away from electoral systems that pose structural barriers to communities of color,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. The nonprofit legal organization championed the Worcester suit and others that have nearly extinguished all-at-large voting in large Massachusetts cities.

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The move follows decisions by the Everett and Lowell city councils to change their at-large elections to avert similar legal challenges. Everett recently did so proactively, however, while Lowell fought a similar lawsuit for more than two years before conceding.

“Worcester appears to have learned the lessons of Lowell, which is that fighting against equal voting rights is not a good move,” Sellstrom said.

The Worcester suit was filed by individual city residents, as well as Worcester Interfaith, a community organization advocating for better jobs, public safety, and education, and the Worcester Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The suit asserts that the city’s election system dilutes the voting power of communities of color and violates the federal Voting Rights Act and the US Constitution.

“What the lawsuit was seeking to do was to change [the] electoral system so that every person’s vote has equal power,” said Rebecca MacDowell Lecaroz, a Brown Rudnick partner who also represented the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.

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Sixty percent of Worcester Public School students are Black or Latino, but the School Committee is all white and has been for most of its history. The School Committee is made up of seven members: six elected at-large and the mayor, who is elected as an at-large city councilor.

The lack of diversity is a direct result of at-large voting, the plaintiffs allege. In such a winner-take-all system, a slight majority of the population can control all the seats and win every election.

Conversely, the 11-member Worcester City Council has six members elected at-large and five by the voters in separate geographic districts of the city. That body now includes three people of color.

“The city is evolving and the city is changing,” said District 1 City Councilor Sean M. Rose, one of the three councilors of color.

The council’s vote against fighting the suit aligns with other changes the city has made since the murder of George Floyd last year, Rose said. Others include a plan to remove police officers from the city’s public schools, starting a paid cadet program for the police and fire departments, conducting an equity audit of the city’s policies, and training city staff about equity.

Rose voted for changing how School Committee members are elected, in part, because he was uncomfortable with the city spending its limited funds during a global pandemic to fight the legal challenge.

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“We could be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight equity,” Rose said. “I didn’t sign up for that.”

Not everyone agreed, though. Councilor-at-Large Morris A. Bergman was one of two members who voted against the move, saying he would have liked more information about the allegations and more deliberation on the city’s alternatives before moving forward.

“As a city councilor and as a lawyer, just because somebody files a lawsuit, you don’t accept it at face value,” Bergman said in an interview.

He also noted that the city is not getting any voter input on the change. Even the referendum in which voters will get to weigh in on specific election changes will be nonbinding, he said.

“We’re really not giving the voters much of a say,” he said.

In 2011, when the city did seek community opinion on changing the structure of School Committee elections, voters rejected the idea, 52-48 percent.

The city still needs to draft a consent decree outlining the agreement on how to change elections. But last week’s vote represents “a welcome commitment from the city for real change,” Lecaroz said.

So far, only two people have come forward to run in a fall election in which two seats will be vacated by retiring long-term School Committee members. Advocates often note that it’s much more expensive and challenging to mount a citywide campaign than to run for a district seat.

“Maybe under a new set of circumstances, it might motivate someone who wouldn’t normally jump into the race,” Rose said.

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Some education advocates hope that if School Committee members come from all parts of the city — and not just from the more affluent, west side of town, as the majority do now — that will lead to policies that reflect the lived experience of Worcester students and families.

”This was a structural change that we needed,” said Mary Jo Marion, who cochaired the Worcester Mayoral Commission on Latino Education and Advancement, which recommended two years ago changing the way the School Committee was elected.

That commission grew out of years of distrust and frustration among Worcester’s Latino residents, who saw disproportionate disciplinary action taken against their children, low graduation rates, and teachers and school leaders who haven’t looked like them.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 10 percent of Latino students were disciplined, compared to 8 percent of Black students and 5 percent of white students, according to state data. Latino students were also more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions.

Last year, Latino students graduated at a lower rate than their peers. Only 85 percent of Latino students graduated in four years, compared to 88 percent of white students and 91 percent of Black students, according to state data.

And although 43 percent of the district’s students are Latino, educators are mostly white. Only 4 percent of principals and 7 percent of teachers are Latino, according to the mayoral commission report.

But although changing Worcester’s method of elections might help students and families hold the School Committee accountable, it’s not enough, Marion said.

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“We need change at all levels,” she said.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.