Close to Home: Speak out on Santa Rosa schools’ transition to district elections

Ron Kristof



On Aug. 9, the Santa Rosa City Schools board voted unanimously to transfer to single-member districts from our current at-large configuration.

Prompted by the California Voting Rights Act of 2002, the district is now in the process of making this change. Between Sept. 13 and Nov. 1, there will be a series of seven meetings to gather public input. The goal is to elect three of the seven-member board by “district” in 2018 and complete the transition in 2020.

Regardless of the law, there has been something wrong with the fact that the current board has no Latinos even though nearly 50 percent of our student population is Latino. Currently, no school board member resides west of the freeway, which has been the case for years. The wealth differential is substantial between the east and west sides. The Voting Rights Act addresses the “dilution” of minority voting, in our case Latino voters, but the transition will also guarantee all who live on the west side proportional representation.

The movement to single-member districts is a step toward inclusiveness but not an end unto itself. Santa Rosa City Schools is a large and complex district. It is a combined district (a large secondary district with a smaller elementary district within) that has more than 16,000 students, features a staff of 1,500, contains 26 schools spread out over a large geographic area, has a budget of $160 million and increasingly reflects a great deal of socio-economic diversity. The upcoming public meetings are an opportunity to define who we are as a school community. Groups and individuals who have been advocating for more inclusiveness are encouraged to come forward at these meetings and once again make their voices heard.

Expanding the pool of board candidates is an important corollary to transferring to single-member districts. Running for the Santa Rosa School Board can be daunting. There are filing fees, increasingly expensive campaign costs, a large time commitment, a steep learning curve and an endless parade of issues that must be dealt with. Board members receive a small stipend and may receive health care, but being a school board member is not a paid position. If our goal is to elect Latino candidates and to increase socio-economic diversity on the board, we will need to take a hard look at the barriers that exist for running for and holding office. This will take a huge effort and will run well beyond the last formal transfer to single-member district meeting on Nov. 1.

California’s new school finance and accountability plans, the Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control Accountability Plan, stress the need for more parental, teacher and community input into our local schools. The state believes that school officials simply make better decisions in general when those most affected by them have a real voice. It is easy to say this, but to ensure that all of our sites have adequate input, the district needs to continue and expand its outreach. Outreach must be extended to potential board candidates as well.

The city of Santa Rosa is moving down a similar path toward single-member City Council districts. The Santa Rosa City Schools boundary encompasses a larger area than the city does and already includes the Roseland area, but we are the same community. This a rare chance for our entire community to come together to (re)define who we are.

Too many have been left out of our governance process for too long. Government should continually strive to become more inclusive, more transparent and more accountable.

Ron Kristof is a member of the Santa Rosa school board.