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.”