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Dade To Abandon At-Large Election of School Board

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The Dade County, Fla., school board has agreed to abandon its at-large election method in favor of a new system likely to increase minority representation.

Seeking to end a voting-rights lawsuit filed against it three years ago, the board voted 4 to 3 late last month to divide the county into nine single-member districts in time for the 1996 elections.

Instead of going to a trial scheduled to begin this month, the case is expected to be brought before U.S. District Court Judge Lenore Nesbitt so the settlement can receive final approval.

Board members have said they decided to settle the case because they saw little hope of winning and did not view a continued court battle as worth the legal costs. (See Education Week, April 27, 1994.)

Former Mayor Xavier L. Suarez of Miami, who was the lead plaintiff in the voting-rights case, last week hailed the board's decision, saying a continuation of the case would only leave the community further divided.

Under the new system, he predicted, candidates will be better known to voters, find it easier to unseat incumbents without heavy campaign spending, and be more in touch with parents and other constituents.

"You can have true grassroots politics,'' Mr. Suarez said. "You will have a lot of turnover, instead of entrenched incumbents.''

Mirroring County Makeup

The district's current seven-member board consists of five whites, one black, and one Hispanic. It has been dominated by whites for decades, even as the proportion of white students enrolled in district schools has dwindled to less than 20 percent.

The plaintiffs who filed the suit in 1991 contended that the district's at-large elections had the effect of cheating minorities out of fair representation, in violation of federal voting-rights laws.

Under the proposed settlement, the board would add two new seats, and all of its members would be elected by district.

Of the nine districts drawn in the settlement, four are predominantly Hispanic, two are mostly black, two are largely non-Hispanic white, and one has approximately equal numbers of Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. If all votes were cast strictly along racial and ethnic lines, the board's makeup would roughly mirror that of the county.

The proposed settlement does not affect this year's elections, but calls for every member of the board to run in 1996. The board's lawyer, Phyllis Douglas, plans to ask the judge to stagger the terms.

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