Newport-Mesa studies adjusting school board trustee areas to even out populations

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The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is considering readjusting its trustee area boundaries to make them more equal in population.

"It [will] give a representation that each area is uniform across the district," board President Karen Yelsey said Friday. "They're [currently] very out of balance."

The board discussed the matter Tuesday, and public hearings will be held over the next several months.

Each board member must live in one of the seven trustee areas. But all are elected at large, meaning by voters throughout the school district.

The possibility of trustees being elected by the residents in their specific areas will be part of the discussions, Yelsey said.

Realignment of trustee areas would not affect school attendance boundaries, officials said.

Last year the board reviewed initial data on population size in the trustee areas. The figures showed that some areas had as many as 46,000 residents while others had around 16,000.

The areas have not been altered since the school district formed 50 years ago, though the populations in each area have changed.

According to the data presented in June, Area 4, which contains Corona del Mar middle and high schools and five Newport Beach elementary schools, had the largest population, with 46,171.

Area 5, including Newport Elementary, had the smallest, with 16,369.

Area 2, which contains six Costa Mesa schools, and Area 7, containing Rea, Victoria and three other Westside Costa Mesa elementary schools, had populations of nearly 40,000. More than half of Area 7's population is Latino, according to the data.

Area 3, which includes Back Bay High School and Kaiser and Mariners elementary schools, and Area 6, which contains Woodland Elementary School in Costa Mesa and three Newport Beach schools, had populations of just over 19,000.

In Area 1, which has Estancia and Early College high schools, TeWinkle Intermediate School and three Costa Mesa elementary schools, the population was 17,464.

A new committee of residents from each area is reviewing proposed zone adjustments alongside a demographer.

 

At-large voting system challenged

A complaint filed in Orange County Superior Court in August alleges the district's at-large system for electing board members violates the California Voting Rights Act, saying it "suffers from racially polarized voting that prevents Latinos from electing candidates of their choice."

The complaint alleges that the trustee areas, as apportioned, "exacerbate the vote dilution of NMUSD's at-large election system."

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, thanked the board Tuesday for discussing the readjustment.

"Unions are all about democracy and empowering people to vote," Dowdy said. "As we know, we have many first-generation citizens and voters in this community who are sons and daughters of immigrant families. We applaud the efforts to try and give them a stronger voice through democracy."

But trustee Martha Fluor of Area 3 noted that lawyers have sued several school districts and cities over their at-large voting systems in what she called a developing "cottage industry."

"While we are all about democracy and empowering individuals to vote, this is blackmail," she said. "And I find that shameful."

According to the August complaint, the plaintiff, Costa Mesa resident Eloisa Rangel, tried to resolve the matter without judicial intervention but was met with "foot-dragging and bald, unilateral determinations by [Newport-Mesa]."

"We want to ensure that minority community votes are no longer diluted," said Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu attorney representing Rangel. "This is not coming out of the blue for this school district."

An answer to the complaint filed in Superior Court in October states that Newport-Mesa "denies all material allegations of the complaint."

A case management conference to determine how the parties plan to move forward is scheduled for Feb. 27.

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

According to the Los Angeles Times, Palmdale agreed to change its voting system from at-large to by district. The Times reported that the city also paid $4.5 million plus interest to lawyers representing three minority plaintiffs.

The San Marcos district said it was already planning to transition to a zoned election system.

Shenkman also threatened to sue the city of Costa Mesa in April.

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.

Lawsuits also have been filed or threatened against cities including Anaheim, Garden Grove and Fullerton. All have began the transition to district-based elections.

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