The city of Worcester has finalized new district boundaries for its school committee seats, capping a nearly yearlong effort to strengthen the votes of communities of color in school committee elections.
The new map follows a lawsuit against the city last year alleging that Worcester’s prior system, which allowed city residents to cast ballots for each school committee seat, violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the vote of Black and Latino residents. The at-large voting system for each seat, plaintiffs argued, has resulted in the school board usually consisting of all white members from a small geographic area of the city.
When the suit was filed, there were no people of color on the school board, even though non-white residents make up more than a third of the city's population.
Since settling the lawsuit and agreeing to a consent decree in October 2021, the city worked with the plaintiffs and Stanford University elections professor Nathaniel Persily to make seats on the school committee district-based. That way, residents will only vote for candidates from their respective districts — a system both sides agreed will better represent communities of color.
The map divides the city into six new voting districts, two of which will consist of a majority of Black and Latino residents. Two other seats on the school committee will remain at-large, and Worcester’s mayor will continue to serve as school committee chair. Worcester’s Board of Elections and the plaintiffs — including the nonprofit Worcester Interfaith and the Worcester Branch of the NAACP — accepted the proposed map during a Board of Elections meeting Wednesday night.
“I’m happy with the map,” Fred Taylor, president of the Worcester NAACP, told GBH News. “We want to have an equal-level playing field because that’s the best way for everyone to be treated equally and for everyone to have an equal chance to succeed.”
In a memo to the city, Persily said a main challenge creating the map involved the mismatch between the number of Worcester City Council districts — five — and the six new school committee districts. That inconsistency means the new school committee districts cannot perfectly align with existing council districts, leaving some residents with the same council district but different school committee districts. Residents and city officials previously expressed concerns that mismatching districts would confuse voters.
Persily said his map crosses school committee and council districts five times. This means that residents in five areas of the city will have different council and school committee districts. Previously proposed maps had more crossover.
“There are literally thousands of potential plans that could be drawn to divide Worcester into six districts,” Persily said in his memo. “The attached plan attempts to do so while adhering to community boundaries and splitting the fewest precincts possible.”
Worcester officials and election commissioners agreed with that conclusion during the Board of Elections meeting Wednesday.
“To be at five split precincts took a lot of work,” said City Clerk Niko Vangjeli, who runs elections in Worcester. “I appreciate the professor’s efforts in limiting those split precincts. … This is the best plan the city can have.”
Worcester could eventually take further action to avoid split districts. In June, the City Council voted to consider forming a commissionto amend Worcester’s charter to make council districts align with the new school committee seat boundaries. Any change to the charter would require voters’ approval or, as another option, the city could ask state lawmakers to pass special legislation amending the charter.
That latter route, known as a home rule petition, is also necessary for the new school district boundaries to take effect. City officials have already sent the petition to the state Legislature. State lawmakers must approve the charter change for the new map to be in place for school committee elections in 2023.
Despite that remaining step, plaintiffs in the original lawsuit against the city celebrated the finalization of the new school committee districts Wednesday. They thanked the city for quickly settling the lawsuit instead of fighting it.
“This is a big win for the residents of Worcester,” said Nathan Pipho, a board member of Worcester Interfaith. “This is a big win for communities of color to have representation on the school committee.”