Last month’s destructive fires have forced Santa Rosa City Schools to postpone plans to abandon districtwide elections and replace them with a new system that allows voters to cast ballots for school board candidates by geographic area.
The school district had planned to hold a series of community meetings to gather residents’ input on the boundaries for geographic areas until the wildfires erupted Oct. 8. The meetings are now scheduled for late November through January.
The school board voted 6-0 to scrap districtwide elections in August, weeks after Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who represents a Texas-based voting rights group, threatened to sue the district and city of Santa Rosa for allegedly diluting Latino votes.
It was slated to vote on final district boundaries Nov. 1, but the hearing has been pushed to Jan. 24 to allow for more public input, said Jenni Klose, the school board president.
“The community focus is elsewhere right now,” Klose said. “People are still focused on the immediate relief from the fires.”
She said the school board tried to move forward with a public hearing the first week the fires broke out to meet a three-month deadline to avoid legal liability under the California Voting Rights Act. However, residents didn’t show up for the meeting, she said.
Shenkman, who previously cited the defeat of two Latino school board candidates last November as evidence of minority vote dilution, agreed to give the district more time to develop a new election system in the wake of the fires.
“Our only interest is to make sure this is in place for the next election of 2018,” Shenkman said. “We have a little flexibility. It’s appropriate to use that flexibility here.”
Superintendent Diann Kitamura in a letter to residents last week said her school district, the county’s largest, was focused on supporting its employees and families during the fires and decided to cancel many events, including the community meetings on the election system.
Nearly 800 students and about 70 faculty and staff members lost homes in the fires.
Currently, members of the Santa Rosa school board are selected in districtwide elections. Santa Rosa City Schools intends to replace that with a new system, carving the school district up into smaller geographic areas that elect their own trustees.
The district still expects to switch by next fall to the new election system, which will force some incumbents to run against each other, depending on how the district lines are drawn.
All seven board members currently live east of Highway 101, some within blocks of one another.
“It’s really important that we get the public to weigh in on this,” Klose said, adding that the proposed maps may have to be revised further after the wildfires leveled many of the district’s neighborhoods.
“We really want to do this right and doing it right is adequate public input and considering the demographics of the population, geographically,” she said. “There is no doubt that has changed since these maps were drawn.”