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Civil-Rights Lawyers Target School Board Elections

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The candidates and issues vary, but many local elections being held Nov. 3 will likely have the same result: lawsuits alleging that minorities were deprived of their voting rights through systems of representation that minimize their electoral strength.

Local school board elections have emerged as a battleground for civil-rights lawyers, especially those representing Hispanics, as many districts with growing numbers of minority residents and students continue to have disproportionately white boards.

In states including California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Texas, school boards have faced legal wrangling this year over at-large election methods or the boundaries of members' districts.

Voters in San Diego will consider such questions next week, when they decide on a ballot measure calling for the election of board members from single-member districts.

"The next major area of voting-rights litigation, particularly in the Southwest with Hispanics, but also in the South, vis-a-vis blacks, is going to be school boards,'' said Bernard Grofman, who tracks voting-rights cases as a professor of political science and social psychology at the University of California at Irvine.

The 1990 U.S. Census has provided minority groups in many areas with fresh data to use in pressing for school board representation that is more proportionate to their numbers.

Avoiding 'Dilution'

A 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling interpreted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as barring voting systems with a discriminatory effect, even if unintended.

In acting to insure minority rights under the Voting Rights Act, lawyers generally have sought to replace at-large school board elections with elections from single-member districts. And where single-member districts are in place, lawyers often have sought to redraw boundaries to increase minority voting power.

"There has been a significant trend among minority communities throughout the United States, both Hispanic and black, to see at-large elections as being representative of voter dilution,'' said Harry Pachon, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department is perceived by many experts as getting tougher in its enforcement of voting rights in recent years. The department ordered more than twice as many changes in redistricting plans for various types of elections in 1991 and 1992 than it had at any time during the past decade.

A recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools noted that exclusively at-large election systems remain in place in about a third of the 44 large urban districts that responded to a council survey.

San Diego Proposal

When San Diego voters go to the polls Nov. 3, they will decide the fate of Proposition G, which would provide for members of the San Diego Unified School District board to be nominated and elected by five distinct districts. Currently, members are nominated by district and elected systemwide.

The current board has voted to back the measure, asserting that it would empower voters and alleviate feelings of disenfranchisement that board members say are evidenced by low voter turnout. The measure also has the backing of civil-rights groups.

But opponents, who include most members of a board-appointed citizens' advisory committee and one school board member, have argued that the initiative would in fact disenfranchise voters by allowing them to vote to fill only one seat, rather than all of them.

One black and four white board members now govern the San Diego district, which is about 60 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, and 10 percent Asian. The new districts would create two mostly minority wards.

Another initiative on next week's ballot would create seven districts rather than five. That plan is opposed by some civil-rights activists, because it would still yield only two predominantly minority wards.

Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles school system, where single-member districts already are in place, ward boundaries have become the focus of controversy.

The city council last summer redrew district boundaries to create a second majority-Latino ward and increase the chances of a third Hispanic being elected to the seven-member board. Opponents of the change, however, have threatened to try to have the council's decision reversed in court before elections are held next spring.

Dallas Election Blocked

School board election systems have also been the focus of recent or continuing controversy in other districts. Among the developments:

  • A three-judge federal panel last month threw out the results of a June 2 primary in Dallas County, Ala., and blocked the Nov. 3 election for the local school board because the Justice Department had not approved the boundaries of one of five wards there. Hispanic activists have sued to have the electoral boundaries changed.
  • Officials of the Lauderdale County, Miss., schools have been awaiting Justice Department approval of new district boundaries in advance of a board election set for next week, according to David Everett, the district's superintendent.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has opposed the proposed changes. The group argues that the changes would not create a majority-black ward in the 23 percent black school district, and thus would prevent blacks from getting a seat on the board. County officials maintain that the situation is unavoidable because the district's black population is scattered.

  • In Holyoke, Mass., a suit filed last winter by Hispanic activists and parents claims that the city has diluted Hispanic voter strength by electing two of its nine school board members at large and by failing to conduct elections in Spanish.

District election procedures also were under fire recently in the Del Valle (Tex.) Independent School District, which is half minority but has only one minority member on its seven-person board--a situation that prompted court-ordered redistricting.

And in Pine Bluff, Ark., elections were held this summer in wards that were redrawn to increase black voting strength.

Focus Shifts to Boards

Such disputes are likely to become even more common, many observers say.

"The main effect of the Voting Rights Act on school boards is going to come, I believe, this decade,'' said Mr. Grofman of the University of California, who predicted the filing of hundreds of suits challenging school board election procedures.

The effects of the 1980 High Court decision began to be felt early in the last decade, as growing numbers of suits were filed, especially in districts in the South with large black populations. (See Education Week, Dec. 9, 1987.)

But, Mr. Grofman said, school boards thus far have largely been spared voting-rights litigation, because civil-rights groups preferred to focus their resources on elections they regarded as having larger political and economic consequences: federal and state races, city council elections, and, most recently, judicial elections.

But legal victories in other areas, Mr. Grofman said, have had the effect of freeing up resources, as well as establishing legal precedents, that can be applied to school board cases.

Another factor is the growth in the nation's Hispanic population, which has meant new Hispanic political aspirations. Representation on school boards is a key objective, Mr. Pachon of the Latino officials' group said, because "often the school board is the first rung in the political ladder.''

African-American organizations, meanwhile, are also citing 1990 Census data in an attempt to protect or expand earlier voting-rights gains.

Mr. Grofman said civil-rights groups in many instances will be able to change school board election procedures without going to court.

"These days,'' he maintained, "the case law is so clear that, once the factual background has been investigated, it is usually relatively easy to determine which side is likely to prevail in court.''

Lawyers also note that the proliferation of computer software that helps in tasks such as counting Spanish-surnamed voters and redrawing district boundaries has been a boon to investigations of potential voting-rights violations.

"Everybody and their brother has some sort of demographic-analyses project going, where they either want to sell you the services or sell you the software or sell you the data in some format,'' said Judith Sanders-Castro, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Texas and California Prospects

In Texas, voting-rights lawyers are planning suits against several school districts that continue to use at-large systems to elect two or three members of their seven-member boards, Ms. Sanders-Castro said.

The biggest target of potential litigation appears to be California, where about nine out of 10 school boards continue to be elected at large.

Upset by their lack of board representation, Hispanic groups last year filed suit against three Fresno-area districts--the Dinuba Joint Union High School District, the Dinuba Elementary School District, and the nearby Cutler-Orosi School District--each of which is more than three-quarters Hispanic but has no Hispanic members on its board. The dispute also led to disruption of a board meeting and the organization of a boycott that kept hundreds of children out of school. (See Education Week, Jan. 15, 1992.)

Although the Cutler-Orosi case remains unresolved, the two Dinuba districts announced in August that they would adopt election systems with five single-member trustee districts. Two of the trustee wards in each school district would have a majority of Spanish-surnamed voters.

Even before the Dinuba case was settled, officials in the nearby community of Sanger were moving to abandon their at-large election procedures to avoid being sued.

The Dinuba settlement "got the ball rolling,'' said Arturo Vargas, a vice president of MALDEF, who predicted that many other districts in California's central San Joaquin Valley soon will abandon at-large elections on their own.

In New Mexico, the threat of numerous local suits led to passage of a 1985 state law that requires school districts with more than 16,000 residents to elect board members from single-member districts and allows smaller districts to hold such elections if they desire.

James D. Williams, an associate professor of sociology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, said the law has dramatically increased Hispanic representation on school boards in the heavily white eastern section of the state, as well as Native American representation in the northwestern section.

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