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.”
School Superintendent Diann Kitamura couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night. But a report by her staff called the transition to trustee-area elections “the best course of action.” The report noted that the only “safe harbor” from legal claims under the state law is by going to trustee-area elections.
School board member Frank Pugh called the staff proposal the right thing to do. But he also said the board doesn’t have much latitude and could face “very expensive” legal bills if it rejected the switch.
“I think the evidence is compelling that we need to do this,” he said.
Pugh, a director and past president for the California School Boards Association, said he brought the matter to his colleagues’ attention a few years ago after hearing from school board members around the state who were switching from at-large to trustee-area elections.
“This is not unusual,” Pugh said of the change to election by trustee areas. “This is the norm now.”
As part of the proposal, the school district would seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to allow a simpler transition to the new election process. Without the waiver, the school board must seek voter approval to make such a change.
Among those supporting the staff proposal Tuesday was Alicia Roman, a Santa Rosa attorney who reached out to the Malibu attorney specializing in the voting rights law.
Ramon said she contacted attorney Kevin Shenkman in April after watching the defeat in November 2016 of two Latino candidates for the Santa Rosa school board, Laura Gonzalez, an incumbent, and Caroline Bañuelos, president of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club.
“This is just not fair,” Roman said of the results. She maintained both candidates would have won seats in district elections.
Roman said the proposed change would benefit not only Latino voters but also lower income white voters living on the city’s west side.
“They need to also have representation,” she said.
Also supportive of the proposal was Omar Medina, a Santa Rosan who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2014. He contended that having smaller trustee areas would making it more affordable to run for office compared to competing in at-large elections. The result, he said, would be more diversity on the school board.
“That’s something we must address in terms of equity,” Medina said.
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.