4 Santa Clarita Valley School Districts Sent Letters On Voting Rights Act
Four Santa Clarita Valley school districts were sent letters claiming their at-large election systems disenfranchised Hispanic voters, alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
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The letter was sent by the law firm Shenkman & Hughes, which represented two plaintiffs in three other similar Santa Clarita Valley lawsuits.
The letters come days after the Santa Clarita Community College District disclosed the costliest Santa Clarita Valley settlement terms yet in three lawsuits over similar allegations.
Related article: COC Governing Board Discloses Terms Of Voting Rights Act Settlement
The Newhall, Saugus Union, Castaic Union and William S. Hart Union High School districts all were sent letters from Shenkman & Hughes dated Saturday, seeking discussion about a voluntary move to district-based elections by the respective governing boards.
The letter to the Newhall School District suggests “judicial relief” would be sought if officials make no attempt to discuss a remedy by July 2.
The Newhall School District letter also claims the effects from the lack of minority representation are “stark and palpable.” It points out the district’s population is nearly 30 percent Hispanic, yet there is no Hispanic board member.
Newhall officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Related article: Report Cites 'Some Vulnerability' To Voting Rights Act Lawsuit
“We hope that the school districts will receive these letters and decide not to go down the path of Palmdale, because we all know where that leads,” said Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer who represented two plaintiffs in the other three lawsuits. “If they decide to go to district-based elections, then we will make exactly zero dollars, and we will be thrilled.”
The student population of Newhall Elementary is 86.3 percent Latino while Oak Hills Elementary is only 12.3 percent Latino -- “both in the geographically small Newhall School District,” according to the letter.
The letter states the scores of Oak Hills Elementary “are significantly higher” than those of Newhall Elementary students.
Oak Hills Elementary students earned a 2013 API growth score of 945, while Newhall’s score was 845, according to data available on the state’s Department of Education website.
An API score of 800 was the previous goal of the STAR tests, which are expected to be changed with the state’s recent adoption of the Common Core Initiative.
Even if the test scores for the two schools were equivalent, the letter states, the students are being denied the opportunities that diversity in schools creates.
One remedy used in two of the Santa Clarita Valley settlements was moving an April election to November to match up to the general election, which was attempted by several Santa Clarita Valley districts, including Hart, Saugus Union and Castaic Union.
County supervisors nixed the move with a 2-2-1 vote April 30, 2013, after a suggestion from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's Office to deny the request.
Susan Christopher, a Castaic Union School District board member in favor of the move, said, at the time of the county’s vote, moving elections would have greatly increased voter participation, citing the bond-measure turnout as an example.
Related article: LA County Supervisors Deny Move Of Local Elections
“Of course, we wanted to make sure we were in compliance with the California Voters Rights Act,” said Christopher, who’s the board president for Castaic Union, last April. “What we found is that we could really increase the voter participation of minorities by moving these elections -- and that’s what we were really excited about.”
Newhall School District board member Sue Solomon also expressed disappointment last April with the county’s vote.
“Definitely, we would see an increase those (even-numbered) years,” Solomon said at the time. “It would bring out more people to vote.”
A Hart district official reached for comment said he was “very opposed” to district-based elections.
“People need to understand how important it is to just go vote,” said Hart district board member Joe Messina. “I find it crazy that some boards will go not only to voting by district, but by allowing multiple votes to one candidate -- a total mismanagement of the freedom to vote.”
Messina said he planned to discuss the situation on "The Real Side," a show he hosts on KHTS AM-1220 daily from 2-3:30 p.m.
All three Santa Clarita Valley governing boards already hit with CVRA lawsuits chose out-of-court settlements over fighting the litigation, which could run in the millions of dollars.
No allegation of a California Voting Rights Act settlement has been successfully litigated by a defendant, according to officials.
The closest lawsuit still being litigated was filed against Palmdale, which sought an injunction against the city’s most recent City Council election and for the city to move to districts.
Palmdale officials recently lost an appeal in their case, but expressed an intention to seek a review of the three-judge appellate panel’s decision by the state’s Supreme Court.
Sulphur Springs School District and the city of Santa Clarita announced settlements in February. Sulphur Springs moved to districts, and the city moved to cumulative voting and is moving its next election to November.
Cumulative voting means if there are three seats available, then a person could vote for one individual up to three times.
The Garden Grove Unified School District received a similar letter regarding an alleged CVRA violation in February, and announced a move to district-based elections in May. That move cost the district no money, Shenkman said.
“We made zero dollars on that,” he said, “and we were happy to do it.”
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