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In 15 months, Santa Rosa voters will begin a new system for choosing school board members, electing them from geographic “trustee areas” rather than by casting districtwide ballots, according to a proposal adopted Wednesday by the city’s school board.

Without any discussion or debate, Santa Rosa school board members voted 6-0 to move to trustee area elections for hree board seats by November 2018. One member, Ed Sheffield, was absent.

The remaining four board seats would switch to the same system in 2020.

In so doing, the district would become the first among Sonoma County’s 40 school districts and nine incorporated cities to use such a system, often known as district elections.

The board action comes as both the school district and the city of Santa Rosa last month were threatened with legal action for disenfranchising Latino voters and violating the California Voting Rights Act. However, school district officials insisted the legal threat didn’t influence their decision.

“The Santa Rosa City Schools District board of trustees has been diligently analyzing and examining compliance with the California Voting Rights Act for some time,” declared board President Jenni Klose in a statement before the vote.

The school board’s legal counsel completed its investigation of the issue in June, Klose said, “well in advance” of the letter alleging the district is violating state law. The board’s attorney, she said, concluded the current at-large election system “is likely not in compliance with the law.”

Wednesday’s vote occurred near the end of a board meeting held at the newly renovated Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts on Humboldt Street.

Under Santa Rosa’s current election system, voters throughout the school district can vote for any candidate, with the top vote-getters winning four-year terms for the available seats. In contrast, the board is proposing that voters cast ballots only for the trustee representing the area in which they reside, similar to the system used for electing Sonoma County supervisors.

Wednesday’s proposal was the type of potentially historic occasion when elected officials routinely expound on the significance of their vote and its benefits for constituents.

But except for Klose’s brief statement, no member of the board said a word before the vote, nor did any of the roughly two dozen audience members ask to speak.

Asked afterward about her vote, board member Laurie Fong said, “It’s the right thing to do.” Asked why, she simply repeated, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Similarly, board members displayed caution in discussing the details behind their attorney’s investigation. It was unclear whether their responses were tied to concerns that Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman might demand payment for the work his law office and demographic expert performed to demonstrate in his letter that the district was violating state law.

In making a case that Shenkman’s letter had no bearing on Wednesday’s action, Klose did explain that the board had publicly considered its election system two or three times in past years, most recently about 18 months ago. Furthermore, she said, the school attorney had begun his work early this year.

But Klose declined to explain exactly how the district directed the attorney to examine the issue, including whether the board had met in closed session to make such a request.

What is known is that last November two Latino candidates failed to win a seat on the school board. One of them was Laura Gonzalez, a two-term incumbent. Their defeat was specifically cited by Shenkman as evidence that “voting within Santa Rosa is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution.”

In the Santa Rosa district, the county’s largest, all seven board members currently live east of Highway 101, long seen as a rough dividing line between wealthier and more homogeneous neighborhoods on the east side and more diverse, working class areas to the west.

Before any change to a new system, the district plans to hold a series of meetings to allow the public to comment on the proposed area boundaries and other aspects of the new election system. Those meetings will occur before and after a demographer helps the district draw boundaries for seven geographic trustee areas.

In a staff report, school officials suggested the state voting rights law, which took effect in 2002, is a game changer when it comes to finding that a local agency’s election system is illegally biased toward minorities. Critics need show only that the system used impairs a “protected class” of minority voters in their ability to “influence the outcome of an election,” a much easier standard than found in federal voting rights laws.

As the district works to create a new election system, observers will be watching for how the changes could affect existing board members.

For example, two board members, Frank Pugh and Sheffield, live within five blocks of one another, making it likely their homes could both end up in the same trustee area. If that should occur, it’s unknown whether the election for that area trustee would take place in 2018, when Pugh would be up for re-election, or in 2020, when Sheffield’s term would be ending.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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