PolitiCal

Area school district settles lawsuit, will change elections

The ABC Unified School District in Cerritos has become the latest jurisdiction to switch election systems in the face of lawsuits alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act.

The district's board voted Tuesday to settle a lawsuit brought against it and to implement a new election system. The settlement was announced Wednesday in separate news releases by the district and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, which brought the suit on behalf of Latino residents.

Under the settlement, the district will stop electing its board members at large and create seven geographic voting areas. Voters in each area will elect a board member to represent them. Advocates of by-area elections say they will improve minorities' opportunities to elect a candidate they believe can best represent them.

"California's future depends upon the success of our public education system," Thomas A, Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, said in a statement announcing the settlement.

"That system works best when community interests are fairly represented," Saenz said, adding the settlement "ensures better representation" for the entire school district.

District officials said in a statement Wednesday that they settled  the suit to avoid "exorbitant" legal costs and to "ensure the district remains focused on student achievement." 

"Deciding to settle this case, rather than defending an election process that has served this community and its students very well was, to say the least, difficult, board President Celia Spitzer said in the statement.

The board, which is paying $140,000 in plaintiffs' attorney fees as part of the settlement, will work with community members to draw up new voting areas in time for the next election, scheduled for 2015.

Governmental bodies with significant minority populations but little or no minority representation are increasingly being sued under the state's voting-rights law. A number have settled or voluntarily switched to by-district elections to avoid costly litigation.

Others, such as Palmdale, have resisted. Officials there plan to appeal a ruling last summer that it is in violation of the voting-rights measure. Certification of the city's election earlier this month has been delayed pending a court ruling on whether the at-large election was valid.

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jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

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