ACLU sues Jasper County schools, alleges improper school board districts

Civil liberties group says current districts lack population balance, undermining right to vote

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJune 25, 2014 

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Democrat from Jasper County, introduced a bill May 1 to redraw the county's school board districts.

Jasper County's school board districts have population imbalances that violate residents' voting rights, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The suit claims that the Jasper County School District Board of Trustees' nine single-member districts -- last updated more than 15 years ago -- violate the "one person, one vote" standard of the 14th Amendment.

The ACLU seeks an injunction that would prohibit further use of the existing districting plan.

Seven of nine board seats are up for election in November, and the suit asks the court to begin the process to draft and implement a new plan that would allow the elections to go forward "in a timely and lawful manner."

The school district has yet to file a response. Attempts to contact district officials were unsuccessful.

Based on the most recent census data, population deviates as much as 62 percent between the smallest and largest districts in the county. The courts recommend a deviation no more than 10 percent, according to the suit.

The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of Priscilla Fraser, George M. Hood, Louise Rawlings and Anthony Cannick -- all residents of District 7, the board's most populated district. The seat currently is held by Fraser, whose term expires this year. It is unknown whether she will seek re-election, and attempts Wednesday to reach her were unsuccessful.

The plantiffs are represented by Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, and Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina.

Attempts Wednesday to reach both were unsuccessful.

"There is no excuse for allowing the votes of residents of the school district to be diluted by the use of an unconstitutional plan," McDonald said in a news release.

In addition to the school district, the suit lists as defendants board Chairwoman Berty Riley, in her official capacity; the county's Board of Elections and Registration Commission; and Jeanine Bostick, director of Jasper County Elections and Voter Registration, in her official capacity.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Riley and Bostick were unsuccessful.

In the suit, the ACLU claims that the S.C. Legislature and school district had an adequate opportunity to fix the districting plan but failed to do so.

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, has twice in recent legislative sessions introduced bills redrawing the boundaries. His first attempt in the 2011-12 legislative session was killed by fellow Jasper County delegation member state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, according to the representative.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Pinckney and Herbkersman were unsuccessful.

In May, Pinckney proposed another redistricting plan, noting the population has shifted greatly since districts were enacted in 1998. They need to be redrawn to be fair and in compliance, he added.

But the bill Pinckney filed May 1 has received similar opposition. The House referred it to the county delegation May 27.

Herbkersman said in May he agrees the districts need to be redrawn, but said there is a better way to do it -- though he doesn't yet know what that is.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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