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High school board divides district into five voting areas

 

Expanded version of previously posted story.

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By Dave Boyce | Almanac Staff Writer

It's the end of the era in the Sequoia Union High School District when each voter could cast a ballot to fill all five school board seats.

When a new system is fully implemented, the school district will be divided into five voting areas -- one for each board seat. Each voter will cast a ballot to elect just one board member -- the one residing in the same area as that voter.

Creating voting areas meets the requirements of the state's Voting Rights Act and reduces the likelihood of a lawsuit that had been threatened by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The lawsuit threat reflected complaints from Hispanic residents that they are not represented on the board despite comprising 30 percent of the district's population, according to census data. Of the five current board members, all are white and none lives in a Hispanic community.

In a unanimous vote Dec. 14, the board approved a map that divides the 19-square-mile school district into five voting areas -- areas A through E -- of approximately equal population and laid out using traditional redistricting principles.

Area E, which includes East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks, has a primarily Hispanic population, a factor that could make it easier for a person of color to be elected to the board.

Voting areas should reflect factors such as race, income level and the sense of community that develops in neighborhoods around schools and parks, demographers said. Race must be a criteria, but it cannot be the only criteria.

Voting areas should also be compact and contiguous and defer to visible boundaries such as creeks and major roads.

Following instructions from the board, the demographer created a map meant to avoid perceptions by the public that a board member from a voting area represents a particular high school.

Area E, for example, includes most of the Ravenswood City School District, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks, but parts of all of these communities are also in Area D.

Households assigned to Menlo-Atherton High School are spread among areas C, D and E, while households assigned to Woodside High are concentrated in Area C, but also present in areas B, D and E.

Transition

Because it's a completely new election system being absorbed into an existing system of duly elected officials whose terms have years yet to go, the transition will take time. Respecting the will of voters who have already elected people to the board is another important factor to consider in redistricting.

The terms of two board members Chris Thomsen and Alan Sarver end in 2017, while those of Carrie DuBois, Allen Weiner and Georgia Jack end in 2019.

Adding a layer of complexity, Mr. Thomsen and Mr. Weiner live in Area D, while Ms. DuBois and Mr. Sarver live in Area A.

Questions arise. Who gets to run for office first? What are the options when both members from an area are on the board, with one recently re-elected and the other facing the end of a term? An attorney from the County Counsel's Office is studying the matter and may be ready to inform the board of its options in January.

Complicating this calculus still further is the likely decision by the board in the new year to shift elections to even-numbered years, when turnout is higher and in keeping with a 2015 state law meant to increase voter participation. Board members have shown a preference for extending each board member's term by one year, which would mean elections in 2018 and 2020.

Different views

While Ms. DuBois and Ms. Jack voted with their colleagues in approving the map, Ms. Jack said she stood by her original preference, stated at a previous meeting, for a map that more closely associated elementary districts and high school attendance areas.

That map created "more logical boundaries," Ms. Jack said at the time. "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."

Responding to Ms. Jack's reaffirmation, Mr. Weiner reaffirmed his preference for the map that won the day, mainly because it did not create associations with a particular high school.

Mr. Thomsen said he saw value in both approaches, and that he would have preferred a map that presented a "more elegant solution."

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