SPUSD Faces CVRA Issues | Attorney’s Letter Says School District Must Change to District-Based Election

Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu attorney, is urging the South Pasadena Unified School District to switch to district voting for its five Board of Education seats by accusing the district of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). He is threatening to sue if at-large voting is not abandoned

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | South Pasadena Board of Education; Superintendent Geoff Yantz and former President, Suzie Abajian

It was only a matter of time.

Like the City of South Pasadena before it, the South Pasadena Unified School District has received a demand letter from a Malibu law firm alleging it is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Unless it fights the allegation, which it likely will not, the school district will be required to pay $30,000 in attorney fees, the maximum allowable by statute to the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes.

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Throughout California, Kevin Shenkman, 40, has been suing cities and school districts after sending out demand letters insisting they change the way they elect members of their city councils and school districts to increase African-American and Latino representation.

Shenkman & Hughes, the latter Shenkman’s wife, is acting on behalf of its client, the nonprofit Southwest Voter Registration Project (SVREP), created to empower Latinos and other minorities by increasing their participation in the American democratic process.

The attorney claims that the South Pasadena Unified School District relies upon an at-large election system for electing candidates to its Board of Education and that voting within South Pasadena is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution. He asserts the South Pasadena Unified School District at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (“CVRA”).

In addition, Shenkman says CVRA is not in favor of the use of so-called “at-large” voting – an election method that permits voters of an entire jurisdiction to elect candidates to each open seat.”

He’s asking the school district to end at-large voting in favor of going to the districting method, the same as the City of South Pasadena adopted in 2017 after it was forced to follow Shenkman’s actions or face a lawsuit.

“In recognition that litigation involves significant costs and no school district or city has been successful in defending the claim, the Board of Education will consider making the change for the 2022 November election,” explained South Pasadena Unified School District Superintend Dr. Geoff Yantz.

Yantz further expressed, “Transitioning to a district-based election method is a time consuming process, which requires public input, the involvement of the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization, and the State Board of Education. Transitioning to a district-based election for 2022 allows the trustee-area boundaries to be drawn with data from the 2020 federal decennial Census, which will not become available until 2021”.

The South Pasadena Unified School District is one of many governing bodies, including City Councils and Board of Educations in the state, that have been sent demand letters from Shenkman, on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Project.

Although cities might want to put up a fight, none have prevailed against Shenkman, opting to pay the $30,000 believing it is the best remedy over wasteful spending in the courts.

In one example, Shenkman sued the City of Palmdale for violating the CVRA. Following an eight-day trial, the law firm won, costing the city about $7 million in legal costs while a district-based voting was ultimately imposed.

Cities like South Pasadena quickly learned that switching to district elections was the quickest remedy to avoid paying sky-high legal fees to Shenkman’s law firm, knowing it would likely not prevail in the courtroom.

According to a May 2017 story in the Los Angeles Times, out of California’s 482 cities, only 59 hold district elections. No city holding at-large elections has ever won in a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

Along with the City of South Pasadena, demand letters have been sent by Shenkman, among others, to Costa Mesa, Hemet, Wildomar, Hesperia and Upland, Carlsbad, Fremont, Anaheim, Vista and Fremont in Northern California. Receiving lawsuits were West Covina, Rancho Cucamonga, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Monica.

Shenkman, has successfully fought off every challenge by cities, as City Councils and school districts have succumbed to paying costly fees in the millions. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Santa Monica case are seeking $22.3 million in attorney fees and expenses after superior court judge ruled earlier this year that the city’s at-large election system discriminates against Latino voters.

As a result of Shenkman’s claim, the local Board of Education, like the South Pasadena City Council, will agree to draw up a voting area map by district or eventually receive a lawsuit from the attorney.

“It’s difficult to accept,” Yantz exclaimed. “He’s taking hard-earned taxpayer money by forcing us to go to a district-based system for a school district that has diverse representation serving on the Board of Education and has been successfully operating by the at-large system for generations.”