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CUSD trustee areas to change for better Latino representation
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Months ago, the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights sent letters to 25 school districts encouraging them to voluntarily end their practice of at-large elections or risk being sued.

Ceres Unified School District acquiesced last week when it adopted a method of reform. The Ceres School Board approved the change to a district-based system of electing trustees on Thursday with a unanimous vote.

"I don't disagree with what they're trying to accomplish," said board trustee Mike Welsh, who pointed out that he, along with board of trustees Teresa Guerrero and Edgar Romo, are hispanics on the board. "They're trying to make it to where Latinos have a voice. It's something everybody in the state is going to have to recognize. History is going to show that it was the right thing to do."

CUSD avoided litigation by reaching a compromise with the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights. The nonprofit advocacy group had filed a lawsuit on behalf of Latino voters, charging that the district's at-large method of election was racially polarizing and violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Similar lawsuits were filed against the Modesto City Council and Madera Unified School District.

The city of Modesto reached a $3 million settlement with the Lawyers' Committee after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state's Voting Rights Act.

Madera Unified School District was sued in August. A judge ruled in September that the district's election method violated the terms of the CVRA.

"The board doesn't want to spend million of dollars to fight a case that is not winnable," CUSD Supt. Walt Hanline said.

Added Welsh: "We trying to do what's best for the people we represent."

Ceres Unified's new system for electing school board members will be implemented this year. Five single-member trustee areas and two at-large trustee offices will be established for the November 2009 and 2011 elections. By the November 2013 election, the district will establish seven single-member trustee areas.

A consultant helped the district carve out new school district boundaries to reflect a balance of population and minority population content.

The Ceres School Board approved the trustee area plan without admitting violation of the California Voting Rights Act or any other voting law.

"This is not a matter of right and wrong," CUSD Supt. Walt Hanline said. "This is a philosophical difference."

About 90 percent of local elections in California, including city council, school board and water board, use at-large voting.

Ceres Unified has an enrollment of 12,500 students and nearly 60.3 percent are Latino.

Three of Ceres Unified's board of trustees are Hispanic, including Welsh, Teresa Guerrero and Edgar Romo.