Newport-Mesa moves to change trustee election system by 2018 after complaint over Latino representation

Amid a legal complaint alleging that the Newport-Mesa Unified School District's board election system disenfranchises Latino voters, the district is moving to change the voting from an at-large system to one in which trustees would be elected by the areas in which they live.

The new system would be in place by the next election in November 2018.

Trustee Martha Flour, who with trustee Judy Franco dissented in a 5-2 board vote last week, said she's concerned that once the voting system is changed, constituents may feel trustees are beholden to schools only in their voting areas.

"But that is not the case — we govern all schools," Flour said.

A complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court in August by Costa Mesa resident Eloisa Rangel alleged Newport-Mesa's at-large system — meaning trustees are elected by voters throughout the school district — violates the California Voting Rights Act because it "prevents Latinos from electing candidates of their choice."

Seeking to avoid litigation costs, district Supt. Fred Navarro advised the board to change the election system by November 2018 so trustees would be elected by area.

Board members are required to live in one of seven trustee areas.

Newport-Mesa is on a growing list of school districts and cities being sued over their voting systems.

Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu-based attorney representing Rangel, said last month that "we want to ensure that minority community votes are no longer diluted."

Shenkman filed lawsuits last year against the city of Palmdale and the San Marcos Unified School District, arguing that their voting systems deprived Latinos of electing representatives of their choice.

He also threatened to sue the city of Costa Mesa. But in November, a majority of Costa Mesa voters approved a change to district-based, rather than at-large, elections. The new system is expected to be in place by the City Council election in November 2018.

Flour called the lawsuit trend a "cottage cheese industry."

"I'm not sure that just because you have a minority majority district, it will ensure equal representation," Fluor said. "We come up the ranks. The majority of us were in the [Parent Teacher Assn.] or were principals, so we've been involved."

Of the current trustee areas, the population of Area 7, which includes five Westside Costa Mesa elementary schools, is more than half Latino.

The district is considering options for adjusting boundaries for the trustee areas to make their population sizes more uniform. Under the district's preferred map, Area 7 would continue to have a Latino majority.

priscella.vega@latimes.com

Twitter: @VegaPriscella

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