Two local school districts have been hit with civil rights discrimination claims, which say at-large elections have denied Latino voters access, district officials said Friday.
College of the Canyons and the Sulphur Springs were served with nearly identical suits this week, claiming that the lack of district representation in local elections has denied Latino voters access to the political system.
Bruce Fortine, a trustee for the College of the Canyons governing board, called the lawsuit “unfortunate,” and said while districting may make sense in some regions, it wouldn’t benefit the greater good for the Santa Clarita Valley.
“I understand that they have their position and their point,” Fortine said, referring to Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser, who are the plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits. “And in some communities, it’s probably very important that districting happen.
“But in our community, there are no really strong pockets in any race — the folks are spread throughout our valley,” Fortine said. “There are some areas, such as Newhall, that might have a higher percentage (of Latino voters). But, really, that population is valleywide.”
Kevin Shenkman, an attorney for Shenkman & Hughes, said his firm is representing the plaintiffs in all three suits; however, his firm is working with R. Rex Parris’ firm on the matter.
Fortine confirmed that Santa Clarita Community College District officials, who are responsible for the operations of a Canyon Country and Valencia campus, were served with the lawsuit July 3.
The lawsuits were served to the districts at the same time that the city was hit with a lawsuit of the same issue. R. Rex Parris, who runs the law firm listed on all three of the suits, is the mayor of Lancaster.
The papers were filed June 20, according to court documents.
Fortine’s wife, Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who is Hispanic, was board president last year for the William S. Hart Union High School District, and has served as an elected school official for more than 20 years, including her time on the Castaic Union School District board.
The Hart district, which is essentially a valleywide, 23,000-student district for junior highs and high schools, has not been hit with a lawsuit.
Mercado-Fortine is running for City Council next year, and said she doesn’t see access for Latinos or Latinas as a problem.
“I tell you, the way our valley is, it’s becoming very diverse, but that diversity is spread out throughout the valley,” she said. “There’s not huge geogoraphic areas that are populated by Latinos or other groups.
“I do feel that in our valley, having at-large elections, it really gives everybody an opprotunity to vote for anyone that they want.”
Calls to the Sulphur Springs School District office were not immediately returned.
Valleywide, education trustees from the various boards pitched in and conducted research on the logistics of districting, as far as how it would affect voter turnout, Mercado-Fortine said.
“The school districts came together. We really went all out,” Mercado-Fortine said. “We did the analysis that we needed to do. We spent a lot of money on that.”
The various school boards, which included COC’s governing board and Sulphur Springs, hired Redistricting Partners, a firm that specializes in the field of political demographics, among other areas, to conduct studies, said current Hart district board President Joe Messina.
“We did our homework, and we spent six to eight months researching this,” Messina said. “All the districts, including COC, and the results showed that districting would actually make the problem worse.”
The data showed districting essentially would further divide the Hispanic population, Messina said.
The Sulphur Springs School District lawsuit alleges that the district comprises a portion of the city of Santa Clarita with 56,256 residents, and 30.6 percent of the registered voters in that district are Latino.
“The Latino population located within the SSSD is geographically concentrated, particularly in the pockets of the Newhall and Canyon Country neighborhoods,” according to the lawsuit.
Suzan Solomon, a school board member for the Newhall School District, said, to her knowledge, her district has not yet been served with a similar lawsuit.
She declined to comment further on the suits, but acknowledged that, in abidance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, local districts hired Redistricting Partners, which came to the conclusions cited by Messina.
The school districts sought to increase valleywide voter turnout by moving the elections to even-numbered years, which coincide with national elections and generally produce more voters.
The county, citing inadequate equipment, voted 2-2 with one abstention on the matter, essentially leaving the elections unchanged.
“This suit should actually be against the county and not us, because we all voted to (move elections),” Messina said, “even though some of us don’t think this will work.”
For county Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who supported moving the elections, the issue was a “no-brainer,” said Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell, who added that the supervisor’s vote was indicative of his support for his community.
“This was a common sense request from our local communities,” Bell said. “And the bureaucrats should have figured out a way to make it more cost effective for the county. And it ultimately would have saved more money for the school districts.”
For his part, Messina disagreed behind the ideology of the suits, arguing that, even if the suits are successful, district elections wouldn’t benefit voters or local districts. They also wouldn’t change the representation for other races, which are also represented in the Santa Clarita Valley by local officials.
“Shouldn’t the best person, no matter what race they are, win?” Messina said. “Isn’t that what we want?”