Another lawsuit over citywide elections?

A civil rights law firm is threatening to sue the Ceres Unified School District over its concerns that citywide elections stack the odds against Latinos getting a voice at the ballot box.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area sent the school district a letter in March urging it to adopt district elections because it contends citywide races dilute the strength of the Latino vote.

That standard could open the school board to a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, which allows groups to sue for election reforms if they can demonstrate that racial polarization keeps minorities from winning office.

The Ceres school board is one of the most diverse in the region. Three of its seven members are Latinos -- Teresa Guerrero, Edgar Romo and Mike Welsh.

"It's ironic we got the letter," said Guerrero, who in 2005 became the first Latina to win a Ceres school board seat.

"It's kind of like we are working together, we are making changes, and you're telling us we're not," she said.

Latinos make up just under 59 percent of the school district's student population. The 2000 Census estimated that Latinos accounted for about 38 percent of the city's population.

The lawyers committee sued Modesto in 2004 under the state voting law. Modesto sought to defend itself by overturning the California Voting Rights Act, but the city's arguments failed to win over federal judges.

Modesto adopted district elections when voters passed a ballot measure in February. The city settled the lawsuit in May, paying $3 million to the lawyers committee and other attorneys who worked on the case.

The lawyers committee also is suing the Madera Unified School District under the state voting law. It announced the case in August and said it had sent letters urging more than 20 other school boards to adopt district elections.

The Madera case this week prompted a judge to block the school board's November elections, ruling they would violate the California Voting Rights Act. A spokesman for the Ma- dera school district told the Fresno Bee it's working on a district elections plan for next year.

The costs of the Modesto and Madera cases weigh on the Ceres district's talks about the letter it received from the lawyers committee, Superintendent Walt Hanline said.

"The most important thing you have to factor in is what's in the best interest of the school district and the use of funds available to us?" he said.

Hanline said the district has communicated with the civil rights group about a solution that would avoid a lawsuit.

"I don't believe the interest of the San Francisco lawyers is to destroy anybody or hurt anybody," Hanline said. "They're working to implement a law, and we're working to avoid getting into a defensive posture."

Robert Rubin, legal director for the lawyers' committee, said, "We've had some very constructive discussions with (Ceres) and we're hopeful that they, not Madera or Modesto, is the model for compliance with the (California Voting Rights Act)."

Rubin declined to identify the other school boards to which the lawyers committee sent letters about the voting law. He said the majority of them are in the San Joaquin Valley.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.