At the November 19th Board of Education Meeting in ABC Unified School District, the Board voted to settle a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, citing risk of exorbitant lawsuit expenses and the need to ensure the District remains focused on student achievement. As part of the settlement, the Board agreed to transition to elections by trustee area for the Board‘s November 2015 election, and to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees in the amount of $140,000.
Board President Spitzer stated that all members of this Board share a strong belief in remaining focused on the District’s core mission – providing the highest quality education for all of our students no matter where in the District they happen to live. The Board believes the objective evidence, including student performance data, supports this past practice.
She also indicated that despite the Board's longstanding record of success and frankly no compelling evidence of racially polarized voting, we decided to settle. She noted that some CVRA cases have resulted in public agencies paying in excess of a million dollars to litigate. Given this financial risk, as well as our obligation to maintain focus on our students, a majority of this Board determined it would be better to resolve this case by paying a limited amount of money now, and establishing an orderly process for transitioning to elections by trustee areas.
The lawsuit process began with a letter in June 2011. Attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote to the District, along with many other districts, demanding that ABC Unified change its election methodology from at-large elections to elections by trustee areas because, the plaintiffs alleged, the District’s at-large elections were characterized by racially polarized voting in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
The District’s counsel and a retained election demographics expert reviewed this allegation and determined that the Districts’ elections could not easily be characterized by racially polarized voting. In fact, members of protected classes had a long history of gaining election to the ABC Board. After counsel’s response in January 2012, nothing was heard from plaintiffs’ counsel for more than a year. In April 2013, plaintiffs filed the suit.
It was obvious that deciding to settle this case, rather than defending an election process that has served this community and its students very well was, to say the least, difficult for the entire Board. The vote was 5:2 to settle the case. In a CVRA case, not only would the District and its taxpayers have to pay their own attorneys’ fees and expert witness costs, but those of the plaintiffs as well if they were to prevail.Consistent with the terms of the settlement agreement, the District will be working with the community to determine how trustee areas will be structured. The Board will be working with a demographer to draw map plans in January, 2014. These plans will be shared with the community in a series of town hall meetings. We look forward to the community's support and participation in this process in 2014.