Voting Rights Lawsuit Targets Worcester School Committee

Feb 8, 2021

Several organizations representing Black and Hispanic residents of Worcester sued the city Monday over its at-large system for electing members to the School Committee.

The lawsuit looks to force the second largest city in Massachusetts into adopting a system that will increase the likelihood of adding diversity to the committee.

The lawsuit is similar to one brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights against the city of Lowell several years ago that led to a settlement in which the ballot for City Council and School Committee in Lowell will include district-based seats for the first time in the 2021 elections.

The lawsuit filed in federal court Monday by Worcester Interfaith and the city's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People alleges that the at-large system for electing School Committee members violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of minority voters.

The Worcester City Council already contains a blend of at-large and district-based seats, with five of the 11 elected members representing a district and the remaining six elected citywide.

Despite people of color making up 44% of Worcester's population, the city's School Committee is made up of six white members, and historically been an all-white body, according to the lawsuit. The complaint states that the six candidates who won the majority of support in the 10 whitest precincts in the city in 2019 all won seats, while those supported by the 10 most diverse precincts could not garner enough support citywide to win even one seat.

"The courts have ruled that at-large systems such as Worcester's are unfair and illegal. Worcester's winner-take-all system deprives communities of color of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice," said Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights who is representing the plaintiffs.

After a similar lawsuit was brought against Lowell, that city also adopted a hybrid model with at-large and district seats, including seats based in majority-minority districts, for its City Council and School Committee elections that will go into effect this year.