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Civil rights group pushes school district to change method for electing board members

Board is likely to divide district into trustee areas

A Latino civil rights group recently called out the Sequoia Union High School District, telling the school board to either change its system of electing members to the board and correct possible noncompliance with California's Voting Rights Act, or face a lawsuit that, based on precedent, would likely compel the change.

After a third public discussion of the matter, the board voted unanimously Aug. 17 to begin a process that would end at-large voting, in which each board member is elected by voters from the entire school district. The expense of campaigning to get the attention of the 125,000 registered voters can be high, often too high for candidates from communities of color.

The new system would have the Sequoia district divided into separate trustee areas for voting purposes -- "communities of interest" of about the same population size and with demographic factors shared in common. The voters in each trustee area would elect a member to the board; the candidate would have to live within the area's boundaries.

The board commissioned an analysis of the district's options after receiving a letter in May from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund threatening the lawsuit. Of the district's 243,514 residents, 30 percent are Latino and 12 percent identify as Asian American, the report says.

Of the five current board members, all are white and none lives in a Latino community. In March 2015, the board appointed Laura Martinez of East Palo Alto to complete the term of retiring member Olivia Martinez (no relation), who lived in Menlo Park. In November 2015, Laura Martinez ran for election as an appointed incumbent but did not win enough votes to retake her seat.

Since the Voting Rights Act came into effect in 2002, it has figured in switches to area elections in at least 135 school districts, 27 community college districts, 30 cities and one county (San Mateo County for Board of Supervisors elections), according to Justin Levitt of National Demographics Corporation, a specialist in local government redistricting.

One city, Palmdale, went to court, lost on the merits and paid $4.5 million in a settlement, he said.

Implementing the switch to area elections will not be easy or simple. The first order of business, for example, is coming up with a map that evenly divides the district's population into five (or seven) areas.

The areas should account for the existence of neighborhoods and factors such as race, income level and school attendance area, Mr. Levitt said. It should be possible to traverse an entire area without leaving it, he said. Race must be a criteria, but it cannot be the only criteria.

Ahead for the Sequoia board are several community outreach meetings and at least three public hearings.

Twists and turns

The board can choose to make the switch in time for the November 2017 or the November 2018 election. Given the scale of the undertaking, November 2018 is a likely goal, board members said.

There are complications. Of the five board members, two live in Menlo Park, two live in the Belmont/San Carlos area, and one lives in Redwood City.

In coming up with maps, a trustee area that includes Menlo Park, home to board members Chris Thomsen and Allen Weiner, could result in one of the two leaving the board. But, Deputy County Counsel David Silberman said, such a result could be interpreted as thwarting the will of the voters who elected them.

Election turnout is another factor. All Sequoia board members now run for election in odd years, notorious for low turnouts. A new state law requires shifting to even-year elections unless it can be shown that odd-year turnouts meet an acceptable threshold, Mr. Levitt said.

It's likely that the Sequoia district will have to shift to even-year elections, Mr. Silberman said, which could mean the board would have to decide on whether to extend members' terms by a year.

A decision to extend a member's term would require approval of the county Board of Supervisors, said Kathryn E. Meola, chief deputy in the County Counsel's Office.

The board is not required to put the redistricting question before the voters. It's common practice for school boards to apply to the state Board of Education for a waiver, and it's common for the state board to grant it, Mr. Levitt said.

Board comments

Mr. Weiner acknowledged the inexorability of switching to trustee area elections, adding that he believed the current board represents all district students. His concern: that area elections could pit high school attendance areas against one another, possibly leading to congressional-style pork-barrel politics.

Mr. Thomsen said he is curious about cumulative voting, in which each voter gets as many votes as there are seats and may freely allocate them among the candidates running. For example, if there are seven candidates running for three seats, a voter could cast three votes for one candidate or two for one and one for another, or another combination.

This system, used at corporate shareholder meetings, "helps strengthen the ability of minority shareholders to elect a director," according to the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Board member Carrie DuBois referred to herself as a student of race and inequity with a lot to learn. "I think there's some things we just can't know because we're not minorities," she said. "We didn't walk on that road, so it is important to have minority representation."

"This is a very good move for the district," she said, "so we can change from an all-white board to a board that really looks like our community."

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Thinking
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 23, 2016 at 10:44 pm

This is interesting. I see the pros and cons. Makes me think we should be thinking about the same issue with Menlo Park City Council - it's all great people but no one from Belle Haven has been on for as long as I can remember.


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