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Latinos found jobs and cheap housing in a Pennsylvania city but political power has proven elusive

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Latinos seeking jobs and affordable housing have transformed Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in recent decades, but a federal lawsuit argues the way representatives are elected to their local school board is unfairly shutting them out of power.

Nearly two-thirds of students in the Hazleton Area School District are Hispanic, but no Hispanic person has ever been elected to its school board, prompting the court challenge claiming non-Hispanic white voters have employed the district’s “at-large” election system to keep things that way.

Two mothers of children enrolled in the anthracite coal region district sued in February, asking for changes to a system they argue dilutes their voting strength and violates the federal Voting Rights Act and the constitutional right to equal protection of the law.

The district’s 78,000 residents are about 55% white, 40% Hispanic and 5% Black, Asian or multi-racial, according to the lawsuit, with Hispanics concentrated around Hazleton. Hazleton is among several smaller cities in eastern Pennsylvania where Latino populations have grown large enough to have significant impacts on elections, including this year’s hotly contested races for president and U.S. Senate.

The Hazleton board has shown “a significant lack of responsiveness” to the needs of the district’s Hispanic residents, the plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit.

“This includes, but is not limited to, disregard for serious concerns relating to disparate student discipline, student registration procedures founded on unfair stereotypes, inadequate school staffing, lack of qualified translators and lack of effective communication with parents,” according to the lawsuit.

The district requires three separate proofs of address to establish residency from those seeking to be registered for school. A bilingual sign to that effect is posted at the entrance to the administration building, with “must have three” underlined and “no exceptions!” added in handwriting.

Latino leaders say such proofs can be a challenge to produce for those who are new to the country and may lack stable living arrangements. Some say school translators are overworked and understaffed. And there is a feeling that students without strong English skills can be subject to harsher disciplinary treatment.

“We are in an area that is very conservative,” said Vianney Castro, a native of the Dominican Republican and a Democrat who lost November’s mayoral election in Hazleton by about 25 percentage points. “They have refused to change. And everything that is happening around us is change.”

Tony Bonomo, president of the Hazleton Area School Board, said electing voters by region may be more fair, but he and the other incumbent board members are not likely to initiate such a change.

“I do think we’re probably close to having that happen,” said Bonomo, a seven-term Democrat. “You almost have to. When you you have a district that is 60% Latino or whatever, something has to happen.”

In seeking dismissal of the case last month, the school district’s lawyer argued the two plaintiffs are not entitled to sue under the Voting Rights Act and that voters are divided more by partisan political affiliation than by race and ethnicity.

“Plaintiffs fail to allege with any credible specificity that the claimed Hispanic group of voters is politically cohesive or that the White majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate — both assumptions flatly refuted by the reality of the partisan demographics of Hazleton,” the board’s lawyer wrote.

The nine members of the all-white school board are elected in the district as a whole, an at-large election system the board adopted in 1989 amid policy disputes over spending. Previously, board members were elected from smaller regions within the district.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association says 310 of the state’s 500 school boards, like Hazleton Area, have boards elected entirely at-large, 175 elected from regions within the overall district and 15 using a hybrid system.

The Hazleton Area School Board filled vacancies with non-Hispanics twice in recent years, the Hazleton Standard-Speaker reported in February.

The Bethlehem Area School District settled a similar federal lawsuit in 2008 prompted by a decision to sidestep two Hispanic candidates and appoint a white man to fill a vacancy. Under that settlement, Bethlehem, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Hazleton, created three geographic seats but continues to elect the other six members at-large.

The influx of new residents has long been a topic of conflict in Hazleton. The City Council approved the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in July 2006, seeking to deny business permits to companies that employ people who are living in the country illegally, fine landlords who rent to them and require tenants to register and pay for a rental permit. A federal judge struck down the ordinance.

The state’s booming Latino population is experiencing growing pains as it works to translate raw numbers in political power, said state Rep. Manny Guzman, a Democrat from Reading and vice chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Latino Caucus.

“We need to do a better job of turning out our voters and building a bench within these respective areas,” Guzman said.

The U.S. Justice Department earlier this month filed a document supporting the ability of private plaintiffs, such as the two women who are suing the Hazleton district, to bring such challenges under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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