A civil rights group has sued the Southern California-based ABC Unified School District, alleging its at-large method of electing district trustees violates the California Voting Rights Act by denying Latino candidates a fair chance at winning a seat.
ABC, which serves students in the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, and sections of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk, hasn’t had a Latino on the school board in more than 15 years, even though 32 percent of residents within the district’s boundaries are Latino, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. Nearly 44 percent of students in the district are Latino, according to the state Department of Education. All seven current board members live in the city of Cerritos, which has the largest population in the district, with the lowest percentage of Hispanic residents, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures.
Like nearly every district in the state, ABC selects school board members through at-large elections, which allow candidates to live anywhere in the school district boundaries rather than in specific neighborhoods. The suit charges that this has created racially polarized voting. “You have a pattern over time where the preferences of Latino voters are different from non-Latino voters, significantly different,” said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “The Latino population gets outvoted all the time.”
MALDEF is asking the court to require the district to switch from at-large elections to a neighborhood or zone system, which allows voters to elect local candidates.
ABC Unified denies the charges. “My response to the lawsuit is that our position is that we don’t believe we violated the California Voting Rights Act,” said Superintendent Mary Sieu. The district’s legal counsel conducted a full demographic study earlier this year after receiving a complaint letter regarding at-large voting, Sieu said, and concluded that the district “did not violate the California Voting Rights Act based on racial polarization during the elections.”
The school board is holding a closed special session next week to discuss the litigation. Sieu said one item they’ll be discussing with district lawyers is whether and how the case could be settled out of court.