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MALDEF President Claims ABCUSD Board of Education ‘Under Represents Latinos’

MALDEF President and General Counsel Saenz has ABC Unified School District under scrutiny, lawsuit over California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

MALDEF President and General Counsel Saenz has ABC Unified School District under scrutiny, lawsuit over California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

“Latino Americans are under represented at the expense of Asian American’s in ABCUSD, and we want to change that,” said Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of MALDEF.

By Brian Hews

One of the most influential Latino civil rights groups in America has decided to take on one of the nation’s most prestigious public school systems over the issue of how trustees should be elected in what could pit one racial group against another.

Currently, no Latinos sit on the seven-member ABC Unified District School Board of Education located in southeastern Los Angeles County, even though a quarter of the district’s registered voters share that ethnic background.

Two weeks ago, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a landmark lawsuit against the ABCUSD claiming that the well-respected public school system violated the California Voter Rights Act of 2001.

Currently, every board member on the seven-person elected body is from Cerritos, even though the district also encompasses Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and parts of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk.

Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of MALDEF is contending in a lawsuit that ABCUSD has failed to live up to the intent of the CVRA and are demanding that they switch to a trustee district election system, in which the district would be divided into seven geographic zones, with representatives elected from each of them.

Saenz is passionate about the issue what he calls “true equal representation under the law” and is no stranger to public education issues and politics. He has been a member of the County Board of Education for the past 12 years.

Saenz has skyrocketed to national prominence during the past decade and now leads MALDEF as he likes to say “into new unchartered waters.”

“It is important that MALDEF be involved in this lawsuit,” Saenz told Los Cerritos Community Newspaper in an interview.

“Education is one of, if not the most critical issue we deal with at MALDEF, and sometimes we rely upon legislation and cooperation but we will also resort to legal recourse and lawsuits when it is necessary to uphold the law of the land,” Saenz said.

Saenz strongly believes that the current lawsuit against the ABC Unified School District is “one of those times when our organization has to step in to guarantee that change takes place and the law upheld.”

“Sometimes it is about governance. The (ABCUSD) school board is the main accountability organization that exists to make sure that all students are served properly,legally, and equally.”

“I think there is room for improvement within every school district in this country,” Saenz told LCCN.  “I have said publicly here in Washington DC and throughout the nation that we need to make sure that our position is heard loud and clear,” he said.

“We really have serious issues with our accountability mechanisms within our public education system, especially when it comes to dealing with the issues of representation from the Latino community,” Saenz said.

So why is MALDEF targeting ABCUSD?

ABC Unified School District

ABC Unified School District (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“First of all, this is not going to be the only public school district that we will be focusing our efforts towards,” Saenz said.  Ironically, Saenz said that he has never personally spoken to anyone at the ABC Unified School District including current Superintendent Dr. Mary Sieu or any other district officialls about the situation.

“I have not spoken to anyone at ABCUSD, but our legal counsel has,” Saenz said.

“I hope this ends with a change in the system, so there can be representation from the entire community and establish a voting district system in ABCUSD.”

He said it “may be a bit optimistic” to have a deal in place with school district officials to auger change before the upcoming November 2013 school board election in which incumbents Linda Johnson, Olympia Chen, and James Kang are slated and expected to seek reelection.

Johnson, Chen, and Kang are all residents of Cerritos and all have Asian backgrounds.  Kang was born in North Korea, Johnson is a Filipino-America, and Chen was born in Taiwan.

“We want to resolve this issue as quickly as possible,” Saenz told Los Cerritos Community Newspaper.

MALDEF is also targeting other school district around California with the same type of lawsuit that has been filed against ABCUSD.  “I don’t feel comfortable disclosing what districts we have in mind to target (with legal action) at this time.”

“This is an issue in many parts of the state;  in the California Voting Rights Act we have a way to legally address this situation,” Saenz said.

When asked if he felt that the lawsuit was targeting one minority over another, in this case the Asian community against the Latino community, Saenz said, “minorities are not all the same, and every community deserves representation, and one community’s over-representation (the Asian community in this situation) isn’t taking away anything from anyone. You are making sure that the underrepresented are not disregarded.

Saenz oversaw the appointments of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villiaraigosa for four years to different city boards and commissions.  “We made sure that Asian-Americans and African-Americans were represented, if not over represented here in Los Angeles, during the first four years of office in LA,” he said.

“Latino Americans are under represented at the expense of Asian American’s in ABCUSD, and we want to change that,” he concluded.

Teachers Union to Review Lawsuit

Ray Gaer, President of the ABC Federation of Teachers told LCCN that his executive board of directors has yet to officially talk about the lawsuit on a formal basis.

“I have not read the lawsuit, and I really don’t have much comment about the situation at this time,” Gaer said.  The head of the powerful local union did confirm that the officials from ABCFT were planning to review the suit at a scheduled board of directors meeting this Thursday.

Gaer did tell LCCN that he and others in his union have attempted to “actively recruit candidates in the past” who reside outside of Cerritos.  “As a matter of fact, I handed out of my business cards to a person from Hawaiian Gardens recently and told them they should think about running for ABC School Board,” Gaer said.

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