South Dakota school system settles
By Bernard McGhee, Associated Press
March 25, 2003
SIOUX FALLS - An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that
claimed elections for the Wagner School Board alienated American Indian
voters has been settled.
The suit, filed slightly more than a year ago, said the
practice of electing board members from the district as a whole instead of
from areas within the district diluted the Indian vote.
Wagner is 100 miles southwest of Sioux Falls near the Missouri
According to the ACLU, which filed the federal suit on behalf
of three Indian members of the community, the voting system prevented
Indians from holding even a single seat on the seven-member board even
though they are 42 percent of the district's population of 3,900.
Indians have been elected to the Wagner school board in the
Under the settlement, the district will switch to a cumulative
voting system, according to Bryan Sells, a staff attorney for the
ACLU's Voting Rights Project. It means patrons can cast as many votes as
there are seats up for election, Sells said. And voters can use their votes
however they wish.
For example, if there were three seats up for election, a
person could mark the ballot for three different candidates or give all three of
their votes to one candidate.
"We're extremely pleased," Sells said Tuesday in an interview.
"We think that the school board did the right thing by settling this. We
think it's a settlement that's good for the whole community, so we're very,
In addition to the new voting system, the settlement moves the
polling place from the school to the local National Guard Armory, Sells
"My clients expressed some concern that the existing polling
place was somewhat hostile," Sells said.
The new polling place will also be more accessible to Indians,
Sells said. The lawsuit had claimed that having only one polling place, in
Wagner, keeps some Indians from voting. Many Indians in the community
live 12 miles away in Marty. Sells said they had pushed for having more than
"But we compromised and changed the location to a more
accessible spot," he said.
Kenneth Cotton, an attorney for the school district, said
having more than one polling place would have been too expensive.
Cotton said the previous voting system was within the law but
that school officials were sensitive to concerns raised by Indians. Neither
side in the dispute got exactly what they wanted but that the settlement
was a good compromise, he said.
"I, myself, think it'll be good for the community, and I think
the board obviously felt comfortable with it," Cotton said.
Superintendent Vernal Andersen said Tuesday that he had not yet
seen a final version of the settlement but was glad the case has been
The settlement calls for election notices to be posted in
places other than the local newspaper, which many in the Indian community do not
read, Sells said. Election notices also will be put in places such as post
offices, grocery stores and the tribal newspaper, Sells said.
Already, mailings have been sent out to a number of places,
including a tribal newspaper, giving information about the changes, Cotton
said. Cotton said he hopes increased awareness of school board elections
will "spur a little more interest in school matters."
Julie Weddell, a plaintiff in the suit, did not immediately
return a phone call seeking comment.
The settlement, which was filed and approved last week, will be
in effect during a school board election in June, which Sells said the
ACLU plans to monitor.
School officials had no objections to the monitoring, Cotton
"I think both sides will be watching to make sure it goes
smoothly," Cotton said.