Many East Bay School Districts Transition to District Elections

District elections are coming as attorneys and plaintiffs statewide assert that at-large elections violate the 2001 California Voting Rights Act by not adequately representing all ethnic groups.


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Photo by Theresa Harrington for EdSource3

Cartography is currently an in-demand skill in the East Bay.

As a number of cities in the region race to comply with legal rulings compelling them to elect city council members by district rather than at-large, many school districts are having to do the same for their board or trustee members — which requires a painstaking mapping process. Depending on when individual district elections are held, some will need to redo the process after the 2020 census.

This all results from controversial actions taken by attorneys and plaintiffs statewide asserting that at-large elections violate the 2001 California Voting Rights Act by not adequately representing all ethnic groups. Though some school districts, including West Contra Costa Unified, have challenged this assertion, court rulings have upheld it.

West Contra Costa Unified, for example, is now mandated to elect board of education members individually from five districts, including, according to education media center EdSource, “one majority African-American area in the western portion of Richmond and one majority Latino area in San Pablo and a slice of Richmond.”

Other school districts complying in 2020 include Mount Diablo Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified, Antioch Unified, Martinez Unified, and Oakley Unified in Costa Contra County, and Fremont Unified and New Haven Unified in Alameda County. According to a representative of the Alameda County Department of Education, Dublin Unified completed the transition in 2018. Oakland Unified School District already elects school board members by district.

In addition to creating fairer representation, supporters of the transition believe that smaller voting districts will make it easier for candidates running grassroots campaigns, without special interest funding, to get elected. That’s the opinion of Richmond residents Stephanie Sequeira and Guadalupe Enllana, both of whom plan to run for board of education positions in 2020.

Sequeira, who has four children, ages 14, 13, 11, and 4, in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, was unhappy with the makeup of a previous school board, which had no parents on it. Although the current board is more representative, she still believes changing to district elections will make it possible for someone like her, a self-described “stay-at-home mom,” to be elected. She criticized the previous preponderance of members from white, affluent areas of the school district, noting that new districts might increase the likelihood that “our kids are being served.”

Enllana agreed. As an “active parent” in the same school system, where her third-grade and sixth-grade children are enrolled, she was originally on the fence about voting by district. But by participating in the mapping, she became convinced it would “level the playing field” with other communities. She dismissed concerns raised by opponents of the change that it would cause members to advocate for solely for their own districts. “All board members are supposed to work to benefit all the students in the district,” she said.

Greg Ramon, current president of the San Ramon Valley Board of Education, doesn’t foresee a major impact for students or parents because of the change.

“We have an excellent group of school board members that has always put the needs of all students and all schools first, rather than a narrow parochial view of the schools in their immediate neighborhood,” he said. None of the current board members will be changing the way they have previously governed the district, he stated. “We may be elected by our immediate neighbors, but we will be voting on issues impacting the whole district and all of our students and making our decisions from that perspective.”

The Fremont Unified School District adopted a resolution at its Dec. 10, 2019, meeting to transition to a “By-Trustee Area election system,” and also adopted a map plan for the election areas. School district information emphasizes that five public hearings were held to take community comments prior to these decisions. The district also addressed an issue that has been of concern to many parents: “The By-Trustee Area voting districts are separate from school attendance areas and will have no impact on where FUSD students currently attend school or will attend school.” The new system will go into effect for the November 2020 elections.

Demographic numbers exist to support the contention that ethnic representation needed to be addressed on school boards. Current statistics taken from West Contra Costa Unified’s information state that for its 54 schools and more than 30,000 students, 54 percent are Latino, 18 percent are African American, 12 percent are Asian, 10 percent are white, 6 percent are Filipino and 2 percent are multiracial.

Mount Diablo Unified statistics show that in its 43 schools and 36,000 students, 42.3 percent are Hispanic, 30.9 percent are white, 7.4 percent are Asian, 4.6 percent are Filipino, 6.5 percent are multiracial and 3.7 percent are African American.

Within San Ramon Unified’s 36 schools and 32,000 students, 41 percent are white, 37 percent are Asian, 9 percent are Latino, 8 percent are Native American, 8 percent are multiracial and 2 percent are African American.

Statistics for Fremont Unified School District document that for its 42 schools and 35,000 students, 48.9 percent are Asian, 32.4 percent are white, 15.6 percent are Latino, 5.7 percent are multiracial and 3.8 percent are African American.

The EdSource article quoted Morgan Kousser, who, the story states, has “testified as an expert witness in some California Voting Rights Act cases between 2008 and 2017,” pointing out that “the proportion of Latino board members in school districts that switched from at-large to by-district elections went up 64 percent.”

Teachers interviewed supported the change, while criticizing the process that precipitated it. Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond, noted that his organization ultimately came out in favor of the transition. But when he was approached by the Walnut Creek attorney whose suit against the district ultimately forced the change, he told him, “I wish we had back the $400,000 you made from our kids.”

However, Gonzalez, who added that the current West Contra County Unified Board of Education “is already very diverse,” believes that electing members by district will increase the level of understanding about what students growing up in poverty and with trauma face. “It’s all about candidate recruitment,” he said.

Retired teacher Steven Greaves, who taught 2004-2019 in West Contra Costa schools, addressed the potential “my district vs. your district” issue by saying, “I don’t see disagreements as problems, necessarily.” The open discussion of differences within the system could lead to better solutions, he said.

Susan Binder, currently teaching at El Cerrito High School, also supports the transition to election by district. Like Gonzalez, she believes people who live in the districts they represent will come to the table with a deeper knowledge of individual needs and goals. Teachers in low-performing schools are often singled out as the problem, she said. She compared it to a doctor being asked why s/he isn’t getting the same outcomes for a patient who’s healthy and one who isn’t.

“It’s possible the change might have a rough start at first,” she said. “But it gives us an opportunity not to continue to ignore the problems of poverty — and understand that the schools alone can’t solve them.”

Find the March 25, 2019, EdSource article at https://edsource.org/2019/california-school-district-latest-to-change-board-elections-to-better-reflect-diversity-of-community/609854.

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