Santa Rosa school board members are poised to move forward with a new election system that would allow voters to choose trustees from separate geographic areas rather than cast districtwide ballots, a potentially groundbreaking shift that comes amid allegations the current system disenfranchises minority communities.
The board members Wednesday may vote to authorize creating maps and holding public hearings for a system where elected officials would be chosen by “trustee areas.” If adopted, the proposed resolution calls for the first area elections to occur for three board members in 2018, with all seven members to be so elected by 2020.
Santa Rosa would become the first K-12 school district in Sonoma County to make the shift, one typically associated with large cities and other urban government bodies.
In the county, Santa Rosa Junior College and the Board of Supervisors are the two notable local public entities with elected posts that represent a specific area within a larger jurisdiction.
Two Santa Rosa school board members insisted the district’s leaders had been studying the issue for a few years since they learned that school boards around the state had faced allegations of disenfranchising minority voters.
Nonetheless, the board’s discussion comes less than a month after a Malibu attorney sent letters to the school district and the city of Santa Rosa. The letters maintain that forcing candidates for the school board and City Council to run citywide campaigns violates the California Voting Rights Act.
School board President Jenni Klose called the timing of the attorney’s letter and Wednesday’s 6 p.m. hearing “coincidental.”
“The letter that we received was not the driver in this,” Klose contended. “This is something we’ve been talking about as long as I’ve been on the board. We’ve been moving in this direction for some time.”
Klose said she supports the proposed change in order “that the voting power of our Latino population is increased.”
Santa Rosa’s school board members are elected to four-year terms through at-large elections. Registered voters in the district can vote for any candidate, with the top vote-getters winning the available seats. The elections take place every two years, with terms for three board seats set to end in 2018 and the other four in 2020.
In contrast, under trustee-area elections — also called district elections — voters would cast ballots for only those candidates that represent their specific geographic area, similar to the system used for electing county supervisors.
Santa Rosa City Schools is the county’s largest school district. All its current board members live east of Highway 101, a rough demarcation between established, wealthier and more homogeneous neighborhoods and more diverse, lower-income blocks on the west side. Similarly, council members for years overwhelming have resided on eastern side of the city.
Such geographical disparities have led to calls to switch to district council elections. But city voters in 2012 soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have brought about such a change.
The state’s voting rights law, which took effect in 2003, sets an easier standard than similar federal voting statutes for determining whether a school district’s or city’s election system is illegally biased against minority voters. For example, according to the school board staff report, the law bars at-large elections not only if such a voting system impairs a “protected class” of minority voters in electing the candidates of their choice, but also if it hinders their ability to “influence the outcome of an election.”