A United States magistrate judge has declined to dismiss a voting-rights lawsuit filed by Fort Peck Indian Reservation parents and the American Civil Liberties Union against the Wolf Point School Board of Trustees. The federal suit, which claims the school board’s voting districts favor non-Native voters, may be moving toward mediation, according to both plaintiffs’ attorney Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and defendants’ attorney Tony Koenig, of the Montana School Board Association.
“One option that might be discussed is redistricting. Another might be eliminating some board positions from the district that is seen as over-represented,” said Koenig.
Wolf Point is the largest community on the Fort Peck reservation, in northeastern Montana. Currently, each school board member from the predominantly non-Native part of town represents 143 people, while members from the predominantly Native area each represent 841 people. The non-Native area is over-represented, violating both the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to the plaintiffs.
For years, Fort Peck tribal members have said they want more involvement in the Wolf Point schools so they can help remedy long-standing problems affecting their children, including poor academics, excessive discipline, lack of Native teachers and role models, a low graduation rate and even more extreme outcomes, including suicide and incarceration via what is described as a school-to-prison pipeline.
In asking Judge Keith Strong to dismiss the suit, the school district claimed it couldn’t be a voting-rights defendant because it doesn’t register voters, as a county does. It also claimed that intent to discriminate had to be shown to prove a Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection claim. Strong disagreed, said Koenig: “He ruled against us on both points.”
“This was a very positive outcome for us,” said McDonald, a renowned civil-rights lawyer and attorney for numerous landmark Native voting-rights suits, including one against another Montana school district in 1983.
During a pretrial conference in Great Falls, Montana, Judge Strong also added the County Superintendant of Schools to the original list of defendants, who are school-board members and the school district’s election administrator, all sued in their official capacities. Koenig said he’ll get together with the county attorney, who will represent the superintendant, to discuss mediation.
“We’ll look for ways to find a resolution without going through the expense of a trial,” Koenig said. He explained that the county attorney is on staff, so defending the superintendant is part of the job, but the school board must rely on taxpayers to foot its legal bills. “The school board’s insurance does not cover this sort of lawsuit.”
If mediation isn’t successful? “We’ll go through the whole process,” said Koenig.
Judge Strong has set March 10, 2014, as the date of the trial, should it be required.
This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting.