By a unanimous vote Wednesday, the five-member board of the Sequoia Union High School District authorized attorneys working for San Mateo County to proceed with preparing maps that would divide the 243,514 residents of the high school district into separate but roughly equal sub-districts, each to be represented by a board member.
The Sequoia district received a letter in May 2016 from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund threatening a lawsuit unless the district ended the practice of at-large board elections, in which voters from the entire district elect each board member.
At-large elections make running for office more daunting in that candidates have to raise enough money to reach all the voters rather than just the voters in a sub-district.
California's Voting Rights Act of 2001 "makes it significantly easier for plaintiffs to win legal challenges to at-large election systems," according to a report by a demographer hired by the Sequoia district in response to the letter.
The demographer notes that statewide, at least 135 school districts, 27 community college districts, 30 cities and one county board of supervisors -- in San Mateo County -- have opted for by-district elections. Palmdale, the one city that fought the legal defense fund in court, lost and had to pay $4.5 million in a settlement.
The Sequoia school board has a choice of making the change in time for the general elections in either November 2017 or November 2018. Given the scale of the undertaking, which will include several community meetings to discuss proposed maps, November 2018 is a likely goal, board members said.
The board can create the new sub-districts without voter approval if it gets a waiver from the state Board of Education. It's common for the state board to grant such waivers, the demographer said.
The board may decide break the high school district into seven rather than five sub-districts. Depending on trends of turnout in even-year and odd-year elections in the high school district, the board may be forced to change all the seats to even-year elections, when turnout is higher. Any change will likely result in the terms of some of the members to either be extended or cut short.
Of the five current members on the board, two live in Menlo Park and two live in the region of Belmont and San Carlos, and one in Redwood City.
All of the board members are white. The board appointed Laura Martinez, a Latina from East Palo Alto, to the board in March 2015. In November of that year, she ran for one of the three open seats, but did not rank in the top three after the votes were tallied.