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Suit seeks to change ABC Unified to trustee system

Educator Olga Rios of Hawaiian Gardens argues that the current at-large system at ABC Unified gives an overwhelming political advantage to school board candidates from the bigger, richer city of Cerritos.
(Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times)

Olga Rios is a middle-school teacher with a Harvard University graduate degree and a passion to politically represent the low-income Latino children she says mirror herself growing up in hard-scrabble Hawaiian Gardens.

But that quest is virtually impossible, she says, under the current at-large electoral system that she argues gives an overwhelming political advantage to school board candidates from the bigger, richer city of Cerritos next door.

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Not one Latino sits on the seven-member ABC Unified District school board in southeastern Los Angeles County, even though a quarter of the district’s registered voters share that ethnic background. Every board member is from Cerritos, even though the district also encompasses Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and parts of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk.

So Rios is doing what plaintiffs across California have done: suing under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act to force the district to change its at-large system, in which any voter can choose any candidate who can run from any area. In a lawsuit recently filed by MALDEF, a Latino nonprofit civil rights organization, and an Oakland law firm, Rios and other plaintiffs are demanding a switch to a trustee system, in which the district would be divided into geographic zones, with representatives elected from each of them.

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In an unusual twist, however, Rios is taking on an electoral system that another minority group protected by the voting rights law — Asians — has successfully used to secure five of the seven seats. One of them, Korean immigrant James Kang, says he aims to represent Latino students just as devotedly as all other students.

“If you are a school board member, you are colorblind,” said Kang, a retired real-estate broker whose three children attended district schools.

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ABC Unified Supt. Mary Sieu said the district rejects charges that the system unlawfully dilutes Latino voting strength. An analysis of four board elections from 2003 to 2009 found that voters did not vote strictly for candidates of their own ethnic backgrounds, she said.

But Laura Ho of Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, which is representing Rios and two other plaintiffs, said their analysis found that the preferred candidates of most Latinos fail to win. No Latino has held a school board seat since 1997.

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Thanks in part to growing litigation, more school districts are changing their electoral systems — many of them voluntarily. Since 2009, 77 school districts have asked the state Board of Education for permission to switch to a trustee system without holding an election as required by state law. Fifty requests came last year, an accelerated pace after attorneys began winning cases and large awards following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision to let stand a lower court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the voting rights law.

In the Central Valley county of Tulare, 14 districts have voluntarily made the switch in part because of concern over lawsuits after seeing neighboring areas sued, according to Harold Wood, chief deputy county consul.

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“It was kind of getting close to home,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in the line of fire and get sued, even if we think we could win.”

The majority of Tulare’s 47 school districts have retained at-large systems, however, because they had adequate Latino representation, were legally too small to convert or tried to change but could not redraw the political map without breaking up census tracts, he said.

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Rios and other plaintiffs say the ABC Unified case underscores a divide between the northern and southern parts of the district — differences characterized by the gap between Hawaiian Gardens and Cerritos.

In both communities, immigrants make up half the population. But Asians make up 62% of Cerritos residents; 77% of Hawaiian Gardens residents are Latino. Cerritos is more than three times as populous as Hawaiian Gardens, and the median income of its 50,000 residents — $88,000 — is twice as high as that of their neighbors to the south. Half of Cerritos residents are college graduates, compared with about 10% in Hawaiian Gardens.

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Those demographic differences are seen as one reason for the stronger academic performance of Cerritos schools. Cerritos Elementary, for instance, scored 964 on a 1,000-point academic achievement scale, compared with 727 for Hawaiian Elementary; nine of 10 sixth-graders at Cerritos were at grade level or above in English and math, compared with fewer than four of 10 at Hawaiian.

Hawaiian, however, has gained 86 points over the last eight years, compared with 24 for Cerritos. Sieu said all of the southern schools have made far larger gains than the northern ones in the last decade. She credited the improvement in part to extra services the southern schools have received under multimillion-dollar grants the district has successfully pursued. The services, she said, include extra enrichment and remedial classes after school, on Saturdays and in the summer; more teacher training and a community center that offers a computer lab and mental health services.

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“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but our district has worked really hard to address the needs in the southern end of the district and narrow the achievement gap,” Sieu said.

Rios, however, said the children also need something else: a role model who understands their challenges and can inspire them to overcome them. Rios, 41, is the Spanish-speaking daughter of Mexican immigrants who was exposed to alcoholism, poverty and domestic abuse but persevered to attend college. She said a college prep program for disadvantaged students like herself propelled her to success; she is pursuing a doctorate in educational management from USC.

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She applied for appointment to an open school board seat in 2011 but got no votes from members, who failed to agree on any applicant. The steep odds against a Latino winning an at-large election was one reason she did not run for office that year, she said.

But Rios said she is determined to change the system and make a difference.

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“The idea that every single kid could end up like me will lead me to do whatever it takes to make sure they succeed,” she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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