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DOWNEY - Prompted by the wave of lawsuits beleaguering school districts around the state, the Downey Unified School District board of education will forego at-large trustee elections in favor of a seven district, by-area voting system.
"We've been noticing the trend state-wide," said Kevin Condon, assistant superintendent of business affairs. "We've heard the horror stories of groups going after school districts and the risk outweighs the benefits of keeping the at-large system. At the advice of counsel, the board decided to adopt a by-district system."
Board members approved the switch on Aug. 21 after concerns arose regarding the California Voter's Rights Act of 2002, which encourages the dismantlement of at-large elections in communities where they potentially disenfranchise voters.
Even though administrators insist the current trustee districts are drawn fairly, various school districts around California have become embroiled in fierce legal battles against proponents of the law.
In 2011, Downey resident Leonard Zuniga, along with Tom Chavez and Carmen Avalos, filed a lawsuit against Cerritos College stating the board of trustees was in violation of the California Voter's Rights Act of 2002.
Although the suit was later settled, the legal action prompted the college to quickly adopt the by-area election system.
"If a lawsuit was filed against us, there's very little chance of prevailing and it could incur millions of dollars in legal costs," said Condon. "We see the handwriting on the wall."
Before approving the switch to by-district elections, however, the board did make slight variations to the seven trustee areas to better reflect the population and meet state requirements.
According to a board analysis report, each of the seven trustee areas will incorporate approximately 17,000 residents in order to add up the more than 121,000 residents who live within the Downey Unified School District, which consists of a large Hispanic population.
"The demographics make it impossible to Gerrymander," said Condon. "But in order to be in compliance, we needed to adjust plus or minus five percent of the population in each district."
While the new by-district system should help the school district avoid a lawsuit, whether or not it makes reelection more difficult for longtime incumbents remains to be seen, Condon said.
"You could argue both sides of the case. There is an advantage for incumbents in at-large races, but it's cheaper to run in by-district elections," he said. "But given the odds, the board members are fine with everything."
Published: November 22, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 32