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Home » Santa Clarita News » Voting Rights Lawsuits Against School Districts Could Cost Millions
Voting Rights Lawsuits Against School Districts Could Cost Millions

Voting Rights Lawsuits Against School Districts Could Cost Millions

Ed. note: The data solicited by local school districts cited in this story was acquired through the discovery process in the lawsuits facing the school district. The data report was requested by school district  officials, who denied the request citing attorney-client privilege. Legal counsel for the districts later denied a California Public Records Act request on the same grounds. 

Six school districts paid a combined $77,500 for demographics studies ahead of a pair of lawsuits that were filed against two local school districts and the city of Santa Clarita.

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But the fees agreed to back in 2011 were likely just the tip of the iceberg, if school district officials plan to fight the lawsuits.

A  lawyer for the plaintiffs has said he’s looking to address illegal elections in the Santa Clarita Valley, while the lawsuits have been described as a “money grab” by local school officials. 

The districts entered into an agreement with the Community College League of California to “evaluate the needs of the districts in regards to its trustee election process,” according to a contract obtained by KHTS AM-1220.

Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser filed suit June 20 accusing the Santa Clarita Community College District of violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by holding an at-large election.

A suit has also been filed against the Sulphur Springs School District and the city of Santa Clarita using the same lawfirm.

The lawsuits claim that the local governing boards are denying the access of Latino voters, who are a protected minority class in the CVRA.

The defendants are accusing the plaintiff’s lawyer as having money as his only motive. The attorney has said his only motive is to end the CVRA violations.

An election may be found to violate CVRA if bloc voting occurs on racial grounds, which consistently denies the candidate choice of a minority group, among other factors.

“The concern about at-large election systems resulted in the creation of the CVRA,” according to a report prepared by Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners. “This law, arguably the most progressive voting rights law in the country, disallows the use of at-large elections if it impairs an ethnic group from influencing the outcome of an election.”

Joe Montes, attorney for the city of Santa Clarita, said city officials had not authorized any demographic studies before it was served with a CVRA lawsuit, which was filed June 20.

College of the Canyons requested “Full Redistricting Services” at a cost of $20,500 in the Feb. 23 paperwork, whereas the Newhall, Sulphur Springs, Castaic Union, Saugus Union and Hart school districts all spent $10,400 for “Initial Data Analysis.”

Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman and Hughes, which is representing the plaintiffs, responded to those accusations by saying that all he was looking to do was to end the CVRA violations, and that if the districts were willing to discuss remedies, which likely include drawing up district lines, his potential fees would stop.

The legal costs for the city of Palmdale, should Judge Mark V. Mooney uphold his initial decision in favor of the plaintiffs who sued for a CVRA violation, will be “upward of $1 million,”  Shenkman said.

That’s a figure listed as typical, according to the report commissioned by the school districts, which also notes that a CVRA lawsuit has never been successfully defended.

“As far as we’re concerned, this whole thing seems to be an opportunistic attorney looking to bill as much in fees as possible,” said Sulphur Springs School District Superintendent Robert Nolet, referring to the costs associated with fighting the claim.

Shenkman said he encourages the defendants to settle and allow district officials to “stop the clock” on his fees.

The two plaintiffs live in the Santa Clarita Valley. Shenkman’s practice is based in Malibu, however he said he has family members who live in the area.

“We’re not buying into his altruism about any violations of voting law,” Nolet said, declining to discuss whether the board would settle. “We’ll look at the circumstances of what we’re in and then the board will make a decision about how far we’re going to go.

“(The lawsuit) would be a little more tolerable if he lived in the community,” he added.

The full redistricting services were to include the following: a presentation to the board or selected members of the board and staff that would suggest how lines could change, with the board and staff giving their preferences; the creation of three proposed districts’ input; and the completion of the redistricting process with a final map, provided to the board and the county’s Registrar’s Office.

The initial data service includes demographic maps, the size of likely districts, a list of relevant elections, evaluating where respective board members live, population trends and a teleconference “to discuss the process, analysis and any type of associated data.”

For another local school official, the discussion of letting an attorney decide districts for the Santa Clarita Valley didn’t make sense.

“How are we going to turn it over to an attorney who doesn’t understand our community,” said Hart district board President Joe Messina. “It’s like me coming in and trying to tell you how to rebuild your diesel engine, just because I drive a car.

“The (CVRA) can’t be a one-size-fits-all (solution), it just can’t work,” Messina said. “It’s a disingenuous lawsuit.”

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Source: Santa Clarita News

Voting Rights Lawsuits Against School Districts Could Cost Millions

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About Perry Smith

Perry Smith is a print and broadcast journalist who has won several awards for his focused, hyperlocal community coverage in several different regions of the country. In addition to five years of experience covering the Santa Clarita Valley, Smith, a San Fernando Valley native, has worked in newspapers and news websites in Los Angeles, the Northwest, the Central Valley and the South, before coming to KHTS in 2012. To contact Smith, email him at
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