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Starting with Election Day in November, residents will be selecting Santa Rosa City Schools board members by geographic area.

The school board Wednesday voted 5-2 to create seven separate districts, including one that’ll cover all of the heavily Latino Roseland neighborhood and another stretching from Fulton Road east to Bryden Lane, and another from Third Street north to Guerneville Road. The move represents a major shift from the school district’s at-large election system, which critics argue has long disenfranchised Latino voters, primarily those living on the west side of Highway 101.

Santa Rosa is the first K-12 school district in Sonoma County to make the shift to district elections. School board members said the move will allow for more Latino representation on the board.

This fall, three seats will be up for grabs, while the remaining four will come up for election in 2020.

“No matter what maps we choose, two districts on the west side will be up (for election),” school board president Jenni Klose said before the vote. “We will have two new board members.”

The Santa Rosa City Council voted in August to begin the transition from at-large to district-based elections.

School board members were scheduled to approve district boundaries last month but postponed their vote to give demographers more time to take public input and draft a fourth map proposal, which the board ultimately adopted Wednesday night. The other proposals mainly used highways 101 and 12 as borders, which board members rejected.

Board member Frank Pugh said the highways have long created a sense of divide in the community.

“I want to minimize the divide,” he said before voting to approve the fourth map.

Klose and board members Evelyn Anderson, Bill Carle, Laurie Fong and Pugh voted for the map, while Ron Kristof and Ed Sheffield voted against it.

Board members said the new election system will give Latinos a greater voice and hopefully encourage them to run by creating districts where they represent the majority of the population within that area.

“One of the benefits (is) you can campaign at a lower cost, which should make it easier for people to run,” Klose said.

In August, the school board voted 6-0 to shift from at-large elections to district contests, allowing voters to cast ballots by geographic area. The move came weeks after Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman threatened to sue the district and city of Santa Rosa on claims both were disenfranchising Latino voters and violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Board members contend they had been studying the issue for a few years since learning about Shenkman’s letter to the district and city. Klose had called the timing of the attorney’s letter “coincidental.”

Alicia Roman contacted Shenkman, who specializes in the voting rights law, in April after two Latinas lost their November 2016 bid for school board — incumbent Laura Gonzalez and Caroline Bañuelos, president of the Sonoma County Latino Democratic Club. Roman believed the women would have won seats in district races.

While the district moved quickly on overhauling its election system after some delays from the October wildfires, Roman this week said it hasn’t given enough consideration to underrepresented communities. She objected to all the boundary proposals that went before the board, arguing some still ignore low-income and Latino voters while others favored incumbents, who currently all live in the wealthier and more homogeneous area east of Highway 101.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Bañuelos raised concerns about the boundaries, saying the district needed to align communities such as Roseland and South Park together to boost Latino voting power. Doing so would allow Latinos to elect representatives to fight for issues important to them, regardless if the candidate is Latino or not, she said.

“It’s about representation and equity,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting.

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