A judge has ruled that Ramona Unified School District must pay $878,849 in plaintiffs fees, following his earlier decision that the district violated the California Voting Rights Act when it held an at-large school board election in November 2020.

The Jan. 25 decision by San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer follows a request by attorney Kevin Shenkman for the district to pay attorney fees for plaintiffs Southwest Voter Registration and Terry Maxson and Janie Ramos, both of Ramona, in his lawsuit against the district.

“Plaintiffs achieved their litigation objectives, succeeded on a practical level, and furthered the purpose of the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act),” Meyer wrote in his order. “Thus, as stated in both the statement of decision and final judgment, plaintiffs are the prevailing parties.”

Ramona Unified Superintendent Brian Thurman said Feb. 9 that the district will appeal the ruling. The district is not responsible for paying the fees before the appeal.

“The amount of money being demanded from our school district is a concern, especially since there was no change in circumstances or actions as a result of the case,” said Thurman, who was not superintendent at the time the lawsuit was filed. “The district is hopeful that the Court of Appeal will reverse the decision to award the lawyer attorney’s fees and costs.”

Shenkman said the attorney fees didn’t have to be so high for the district.

“Every step of the way the district had an opportunity and was invited, indeed begged, by me not to go down this path,” Shenkman said. “All along the way, a motion to dismiss denied, summary judgment denied. By the time it got to the trial they should have seen the writing on the wall.”

“If they appeal the amount is going to go up,” he added.

In the lawsuit filed against the district in October 2020, Shenkman alleged that the upcoming Nov. 3 at-large election violated the voting rights act and discriminated against Latinos by diluting their votes. He asked that a special election be held.

The election was supposed to be the first for Ramona Unified with the district split into five areas, so voters could elect trustees in their own geographic region.

But the election was changed over the summer because of procedural errors by both the district and the San Diego County Office of Education. Instead, voters had at-large ballots for the two incumbents, Daryn Drum and Dawn Perfect, and two challengers, John Rajcic and Joe Stupar. Drum and Perfect won the election.

While Meyer agreed with Shenkman in his May 4, 2022 ruling that the at-large election violated the voting rights act, he said the district’s mistake was unintentional and that officials made an appropriate remedy by moving forward with plans for a trustee-area election in November 2022, when three seats were open.

Theresa Grace, who was superintendent at the time the lawsuit was filed, said after the May ruling that the district had worked to ensure that future board elections are by district trustee areas.

The board approved Trustee Area 1, identified on a map as Main Street Ramona and the Old Julian Highway area, in which 52 percent of eligible voters are Latino, in February 2022.

When the board had to fill an open seat after longtime board member Kim Lasley died in January, the candidates were from District 1. On March 21, the board appointed Maya Phillips to fill Lasley’s remaining term.

In the Nov. 8 election — the first with the trustee-area districts, Phillips won the Trustee Area 1 seat, incumbent Rodger Dohm the Area 5 seat and Dan Summers was uncontested for the Area 2 seat.

The district’s problems began after administrators failed to submit a waiver to the state Board of Education — a requirement to hold a trustee-area election — after the county’s approval. Grace said that getting the waiver through to the state board “fell through the cracks.” The district was coping with COVID-19 and preparing to reopen schools, she said.

District officials were notified in July 2020 by the county Office of Education that the state did not have Ramona Unified listed for trustee-area elections that year. By that time, four months before the election, it was too late to take the waiver matter before the state board, and the district had to revert to an at-large election, Grace said.

The county dropped the ball as well, officials said, by not following up on Ramona’s waiver status.

Shenkman got the trustee-area election process started in April 2018 by sending the district a letter demanding they comply with the California Voting Rights Act, which requires maintaining a fair election system that does not dilute the votes of minorities.

During a series of special meetings that began in September 2018, trustees of the 5,300-student district started to consider moving from an at-large to trustee-area style of election. Although some board members expressed frustration at making the change, they said at the time their hands were tied by the private law firm’s pending litigation.

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