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Key issue splits board in drawing maps to subdivide school district

 

Plans to divide the Sequoia Union High School District into five voting areas for school board elections have raised a key question: Should a voting area echo a particular high school's attendance area and possibly put that board member under pressure by voters to represent that school on the board?

The board split 3-2 on this issue in a straw vote at its Nov. 16 meeting. A final version of a map defining the boundaries of the new voting areas will come to the board for a formal vote, probably in December.

The board's split reflects differing views on the idea that each of the voting areas include significant parts of the attendance areas of at least two of the district's four comprehensive high schools, Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, Sequoia and Carlmont.

A map that doesn't do this, that creates voting areas that echo a particular school's attendance area, could create perceptions that a member who lives in a voting area represents that particular school.

This has not been a problem because board members have been elected at-large, meaning that each member is elected by voters from the entire school district. The board's culture has been infused with the notion that each member represents every student in the district, something that all board members embrace.

With a new system of voting areas replacing the at-large system, voters from each voting area would elect a board member, and the candidate would have to live within the area's boundaries.

Creating voting areas would meet the requirements of the state's Voting Rights Act and could reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit threatened by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The board has had few members of color, particularly from communities with significant Hispanic populations in East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks. Of the five current board members, all are white and none lives in a Hispanic community.

Maps 1 and 3

Board members Carrie DuBois and Georgia Jack favored Map 1, which tends to align board seats with high school attendance areas. They argued that maintaining the each-member-for-all-students culture could be done explicitly, such as by articulating it to new members in orientation sessions.

Map 1 "creates more logical boundaries," Ms. Jack said. "It's not confusing. It doesn't divide communities. It keeps communities together. If I'm in Menlo Park and I want to know who my trustee is, I can ask my neighbor and they will tell me. It's that straightforward."

Commenting on Map 1, board member Allen Weiner noted that three of its proposed voting areas showed high correlations: Area A, with 98 percent of the attendance area for Carlmont High; Area C with 84 percent of Woodside High's area; and Area D with 89 percent of M-A's area.

"I think you run the risk that I hoped to avoid," Mr. Weiner said. "If I'm in Area A, my job is to look out for the well being of Carlmont," he said. Map 3, which he said he prefers, creates voting areas in which a least a third of the constituents are from a second school.

Board member Chris Thomsen agreed, saying that Map 1 would almost compel a board member to respond to a voting area's residents in particular. "Even though I understand that we can work on a culture," he said, "it will be an uphill battle trying to get board members (to be) strongly supportive of the whole district."

Board members will naturally feel "lots of pressure" and if the member does not respond to that pressure, "they will unseat you," Mr. Thomsen said.

Board President Alan Sarver said the guiding principle was to "perpetuate a model of service to the entire district," adding that Map 3 codifies this principle and is designed to enforce that culture.

Map 1 "pretty much put trustees in service to a specific high school," he said, and concentrates power and control at Carlmont and M-A.

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