The Jasper County School District has been barred from holding November elections for five school board seats because the current board districts violate residents' voting rights, according to a federal judge's ruling.
A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in June claims that the board of trustees' nine single-member districts -- last updated more than 15 years ago -- contain population imbalances that violate the 14th Amendment's "one person, one vote" standard.
During Friday's hearing of the lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel agreed with that claim.
In his ruling, Gergel said elections for the school board cannot be held until a new districting plan is drawn.
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Based on the most recent census data, population in the current districts deviates by as much as 62 percent between the largest and smallest districts in the county. The courts recommend a deviation of no more than 10 percent, according to the lawsuit.
With his ruling, Gergel put the responsibility of creating a balanced plan with the state's General Assembly, which reconvenes in January.
"This is a huge win for all the stakeholders in Jasper County," said state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, chairman for the Jasper County Legislative Delegation. "This ruling has forced transparency and also is allowing the legislative process to work, allowing the parents to have a say on how these districts are redrawn, and keeps it away from one person doing this."
If the General Assembly cannot draft and pass a new plan by March 1, the U.S. District Court in Charleston will step in to create one. The judge hopes school board elections can be held in the spring, according to Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina.
The school board will remain unchanged until elections are held, she said.
That means Alina Hamilton-Clark -- whose eligibility to serve on the board was called into question after she sent her son to a Beaufort County public school -- will remain in her District 1 seat. Board chairwoman Berty Riley will stay in District 3, board vice chairwoman Priscilla Fraser in District 7 and Leroy Bentley in District 9. The District 5 seat will remain open after Cathy Gardner, its former holder, died Aug. 25.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of Fraser, along with George M. Hood, Louise Rawlings and Anthony Cannick -- all residents of District 7, the board's most populous district.
The defendants listed in the suit are the school district; 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.
Dunn, representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit's plaintiffs and defendants agreed that the districts need to be changed.
"Having such disparity ultimately means that the votes in the little districts count more than those in the bigger districts," Dunn said. "So there is not much disagreement that the current plan is unconstitutional. All the disagreement is about how to fix it, and what is the appropriate remedy."
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Jasper, in recent legislative sessions twice introduced bills redrawing the boundaries. His first attempt in the 2011-12 legislative session was killed by Herbkersman, R-Bluffton. In May, Pinckney proposed another redistricting plan, but that bill received similar opposition.
Attempts Monday to reach Pinckney were unsuccessful.
To prevent another failed plan, both the plaintiffs and defendants -- along with representatives from the state Senate and House -- will enter mediation in the coming months to create a plan that pleases all parties, Dunn said.
If a plan can be agreed on, the hope is that it will pass through the General Assembly quickly once session reconvenes, she added.
Once a new plan is put in place, all seats will be up for re-election and all board members will have to run again to maintain their seats, the judge's ruling states.
Fraser said she's happy with the ruling and plans to run once the districts are redrawn.
"I'm happy the judge upheld the one-man, one-vote principle," she said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
- ACLU sues Jasper County schools, alleges improper school board districts: Civil liberties group says current districts lack population balance, undermining right to vote, June 25, 2014
- Plan to redraw districts for Jasper County school board opposed, May 18, 2014
- ACLU lawsuit against Jasper County School District