A federal judge has ordered Clayton County elections officials to postpone indefinitely the elections for five seats on the county’s nine-member school board because their districts are based on 12-year old population data and likely violate the U.S. Constitution.
Federal District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr., issued an injunction against this year’s school board elections late Tuesday afternoon after hearing arguments from attorneys for Clayton County Public Schools and Clayton County government that the elections should be halted.
The key issue behind both sides’ arguments, and Pannell’s order, is that the school board’s district are currently based on population data from the 2000 Census, after the Georgia General Assembly did not take up requested legislation to redraw the boundaries this year.
The judge wrote in his order that the 2010 Census shows the county’s nine school board districts are now grossly out of proportion, with 37,000 people living in the largest district, while 22,000 people live in the smallest district.
“The court finds that there is a substantial likelihood that the variances violate the ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because the voting strength of individual voters in some districts would be disproportionately less than that of individual voters in other districts,” Pannell wrote.
The legal wrangling threw a bit of chaos and uncertainty into the first day of qualifying for local and state elections.
An hour after qualifying began Wednesday, a county elections official distributed a notice from the county, to the Clayton County Democratic and Republican parties, advising them of the situation and telling them to qualify candidates at their discretion, according to County Elections and Registration Director Annie Bright.
The Democratic Party has not been listing school candidates among their qualified candidates, and no Republicans have qualified for any local offices so far.
School board members Mary Baker, Ophelia Burroughs, Trinia Garrett, Jessie Goree, and Wanda Smith are up for re-election this year. “These [existing boundaries] are not constitutional,” said School Board Chairperson Pamela Adamson. “They have to be re-balanced.”
At 5 p.m., Wednesday, Bright was still waiting to receive Pannell’s order as her office closed for the day. Even though she expected the judge to issue an injunction, she said she was unsure of when the school board elections would be allowed to take place. She said was waiting instruction from the judge as to how to proceed.
A second order issued by Pannell on Wednesday afternoon orders the county’s elections officials, and school system officials, to confer and create — by May 31 — a scheduling order which takes into account the school board’s request for approval of a new re-districting map; notification to voters regarding “their right to seek to intervene in this matter,” and a deadline for people to voice their opinions.
A date for a hearing to approve the map, and any relevant local, state and federal balloting deadlines must also be included in the scheduling list, according to Pannell’s order.
The school board re-districting map issue has been an ongoing saga for months. The school board approved a new map, which they argued was based on 2010 Census data, in January and they then submitted it to the Clayton County Legislative Delegation for legislative approval. It was never brought forth as a piece of legislation, however.
In March, State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), the chairperson of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation, repeatedly said the school board had not properly submitted all of the paperwork needed to have legislation drafted to approve the re-districting map.
That’s a claim school system officials have denied.
Adamson said a new school board re-districting map will have to be drawn by Pannell before the elections could resume, which could mean the primary elections for the school board may not take place until sometime after the statewide July 31 primary.
“He alone has the authority to redraw the map ... so I’m not sure how long it will take for this to work out,” the board chairperson said.
A key fear among school system leaders which prompted them to seek the injunction, according to Adamson, is that any decision made by the school board after Jan. 1, 2013, would be open to legal challenges, if this year’s elections were allowed to continue without re-districting.
“Any action the board took, starting in January, could have its validity challenged if we don’t have the districts redrawn,” she said.
But, another concern to Pannell was how voters would suffer if the elections were allowed to continue without the courts mandating changes to the school board’s districts.
“Without the injunctive relief requested by the plaintiffs, irreparable harm will occur in that the voters of Clayton County will have their rights to meaningfully participate in the election at issue infringed,” the judge wrote.