Alabama takeover of local district challenged on grounds it violates federal Voting Rights Act

WBRC Fox 6 reports that the Alabama Education Association (AEA) has filed suit in federal court against state Superintendent Tommy Bice, Ed Richardson, Chief Financial Officer of Birmingham City Schools, and the Alabama Department of Education alleging voters in the city of Birmingham have been disenfranchised by the state takeover of the city’s school system. The suit charges that Bice, Richardson, and the state school board have used their authority to take over local districts to deprive Birmingham voters of their control of the education system.

“If Dr. Richardson likes what the board does, the vote stands, if they disagree, then he overrides them,” AEA official Gregory Graves said. Graves accuses Dr. Richardson of ruling the entire school system. “It’s regarding school board meetings, voting on issues only to have Dr. Richardson say I’m going to evoke my authority,” Graves said.

Edward Still, the plaintiffs’ attorney, believes race is a factor in the takeover. “Birmingham is a majority black city, majority black student population and we believe that they’re being treated differently than school boards in other parts of the state with white majority,” Still said.

Richardson says the intervention is consistent with state law that has been on the books since 1995. “The state superintendent and state board carefully followed the law, what it requires to do before intervention. I just see this as another effort by AEA to fight any accountability standards that come up,” Richardson said.

Source:  WBRC Fox 6, 2/14/13, By Staff

[Editor's Note: WBRC's report correctly identifies Richardson as a former state superintendent of schools. However, he currently is Chief Financial Officer of Birmingham City Schools, a position he was appointed to by the state board after its takeover of the city's school system and is a defendant in the suit in that capacity. AEA's legal complaint includes two counts: violations of Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Most the Voting Rights Act suits involving school boards have been filed because those boards have adopted voting systems that allegedly disenfranchise minority voters, such as Hispanics or African Americans. In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Dallas Morning News, which reported that Manny Benavidez, an unsuccessful school board candidate, had filed suit against Irving Independent School District and its board alleging that the district’s new voting system is designed to disenfranchise Hispanics. The suit comes a year after IISD overhauled its electoral process in an effort to prevent just such a lawsuit.

Benavidez’s legal complaint calls that overhaul “a sham that would continue to keep Latino-backed representatives off the school board,” which governs a majority-Hispanic school district but has no Hispanic trustees. A tide of recent voting rights lawsuits have targeted local governments with citywide elections for at-large seats, claiming they allow small blocks of white voters to shut out large Hispanic populations.]

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