Newport-Mesa settles lawsuit, agrees to change trustee election system

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District board announced Tuesday night that it has reached a legal settlement in which the district will pay more than $100,000 in attorney fees and change its election system so trustees would be chosen by voters in the zones they live in instead of by voters throughout the school district.

The agreement, approved in a closed session, comes seven months after Costa Mesa resident Eloisa Rangel filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court alleging the district's at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act because it "prevents Latinos from electing candidates of their choice."

Under the settlement, the district will pay $105,937 for Rangel's attorney fees and court costs. In exchange, Rangel agreed to drop the lawsuit.

The new voting system is expected to be in place by the next election in November 2018.

In the board's 5-2 vote in closed session, trustees Martha Flour and Judy Franco dissented. Both also dissented in a vote earlier this month on changing the district's election system.

At that time, Flour said she was concerned that once the system is changed, constituents may feel that trustees are beholden to schools only in their voting areas.

Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu-based attorney representing Rangel, said he was pleased the parties were able to resolve the matter in a way that solves the problems of Latino voters in the district.

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said he is always in favor of supporting minority populations.

"We're all about democracy and empowering people of color to be involved in democracy," Dowdy said. "We have a high Latino population in Costa Mesa, so we like this idea of giving them a way to elect a local representative to the school board."

During open meetings in February, the Newport-Mesa board considered adjusting its trustee area boundaries to make the size of their populations more uniform.

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

Two public hearings will be held in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach at the end of this month to gather community input on three options for redrawing trustee area boundaries.

Shenkman has challenged several cities and school districts, arguing that their voting systems deprived Latinos of electing representatives of their choice.

He threatened to sue the city of Costa Mesa, but in November, 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.

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