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Group suing school districts over minority voting rights

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Civil rights attorneys are using a California election law to force school districts to make their boards more diverse.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, has been aggressively seeking city and district compliance with the California Voting Rights Act, a 2002 law that makes it illegal to disenfranchise minority groups from the electoral process.

The act allows lawsuits to be filed against districts that elect governing boards through "at-large" elections if those elections prevented minority voters from influencing the outcome. The law stems from claims that "at-large" elections allowed non-minority voting blocs to dominate the process.

The lawyers group has filed at least five lawsuits challenging local election processes, they say, effectively block Latinos from being elected. The group's efforts have been aided by Supreme Court decisions upholding the voters' rights law. Boosted by the successful challenge of the Madera Unified School District's board election in 2008 and threats of additional lawsuits, school districts statewide have been spurred to examine ways to reform their election processes.

The Merced City School District and Merced Union High School District reformed their board elections after receiving letters from the lawyers committee. The Yolo County Board of Education sent letters to K-12 school districts in that county, advising districts to respond promptly if they receive a letter from an attorney regarding the California Voting Rights Act. And roughly 25 school districts have gotten waivers from the state so they could implement rapid changes to their election structures, according to a recent piece in Capitol Weekly.

“The California Voting Rights Act is having a pretty big impact across the state,” Larry Shirey of the state Department of Education told the Weekly.

Not everyone likes the changes or the approach. The California School Boards Association has criticized the voters' rights law as poorly written. They have blasted the fees won as a result of the lawsuits, while warning school leaders they could be sued even if they have minority board members. Two officials associated with the association wrote:

Such litigation can put a district at risk of a stigmatizing civil rights judgment against it – and a potential attorney’s fee claim of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. ... More than two dozen districts have already been targeted and are struggling to manage or avoid this expensive litigation.

... A district runs disproportionate risks by ignoring this issue. Dozens of districts have already received demands from LCCR to adopt by-trustee area elections. Districts ignore these demands at their peril. Finally, districts should be aware that the presence of elected minority group members on a board is no protection against a CVRA lawsuit. Ceres Unified School District was threatened with CVRA litigation despite having three Hispanics on its seven-member board.

Robert Rubin, legal director for the lawyers committee, has said his group's aim is to prevent the voices of minority voters from being silenced by the kind of tactics used in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

School boards need to reflect the demographic composition of the communities they serve. If they don't, then how those board members are elected should change. If it doesn't, you will be sued and it'll be expensive.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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