California Voting Rights Act Compliance Raised as An Issue in SCUSD Policy Update
Facing an entirely new funding structure, curriculum, and assessment methods; almost complete district office staff turnover; and implementation of a federally-mandated improvement program, the Santa Clara Unified school board hardly needs to borrow more trouble.
But that’s exactly what happened at the Apr. 10 meeting when a discussion of policy updates veered into a discussion of whether or not the district’s trustee election system violates the 2002 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) – which aims to ensure that disadvantaged and ethnic minorities’ votes aren’t “diluted” by majority populations.
Trustee Christopher Stampolis (Trustee Area 2) asserted strongly that it did, and Trustee Jim Canova (Trustee Area 1) asserted equally strongly that it didn’t.
SCUSD trustees are elected at large, but candidates must live in the trustee area they represent. That system was part of the agreement by which three adjacent school districts (Alviso – 1 seat, Jefferson – 4 seats, and Santa Clara – 2 seats) became unified in 1965.
Neighboring districts Campbell and Cupertino have simple at-large trustee elections. San Jose Unified has district-elected trustees. “Our situation, where a trustee has to live in the area but is elected at-large is unusual,” says former SCUSD Superintendent Don Callejon.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the district needs to comply with the California Voting Rights Act,” said Stampolis.
“I think our statistics clearly designate that we would have to make a change under the current law…Maybe the board would like to take a look at what happened recently in Palmdale…where the City Council election was voided.” An LA County Judge nullified Palmdale’s at-large elections in favor of dividing the city into four districts, two of which would have Hispanic majorities.
However, facts-on-the-ground don’t support the comparison. The current system elected Albert Gonzalez, a Hispanic, and ensures representation for SCUSD’s most economically disadvantaged and heavily Hispanic population, Area 1. (Although many consider this to include the “east of Bayshore” part of the district, in fact it’s the part of the district in San Jose.)
“The fact that you have to live in…the old boundaries of the Alviso school district, ensures that someone from that district is sitting on this board,” Canova said. “If that was not put in place and the unification had gone forward, everyone on these seven seats would be from Santa Clara…and the more affluent parts of the district. I come from a part of the district that is historically not affluent.”
Canova clearly saw the discussion’s timing as politically motivated, remarking, “I find this discussion on the eve of an election less than stellar.”
It’s difficult, though, to imagine making any change in time for November’s election. Proposals for election changes require State and County Boards of Education approval, plus the County Committee on School District Organization’s approval.
But unquestionably, drawing new election boundaries can be a political bonanza for those who control it – for example, redistricting opposition seats out of existence, or suddenly forcing incumbents to run in newly created districts where they’re unknown.
While in the past the notion of this kind political gaming on the school board would have been dismissed, the sitting board is one of the most political and adversarial in district history.
For example, a majority voted to join a county lawsuit against the City of Santa Clara over former RDA assets. Some board members have accused the district of systemic racism against Hispanic students – both openly and by implication. And some opponents of the board majority even assert that anti-stadium groups are using the board as a stepping stone to greater political power.
Redistricting SCUSD would likely end links with former school districts, and merge Alviso with Santa Clara’s growing, affluent, high-tech Northside – something that would certainly dilute the votes of Hispanic and economically disadvantaged residents.
California Voting Rights Act 101
A century ago in California, at-large elections were considered a progressive alternative to the Northeast’s pervasively corrupt ward systems. But that changed in 2001, when State Senator Richard Polanco introduced the CVRA to the California’s legislature and it was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 2002.
The law took direct aim at the potential of at-large elections to dilute the influence of minority voters, regardless of intention; making easier to bring voting rights lawsuits, shielding attorneys from liability even if cases are dismissed, and making public agencies liable for attorneys’ fees even if they don’t contest the lawsuits.
In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs have to prove an election system dilutes minority voters’ strength, including whether the minority group is big enough and geographically compact enough to constitute an election district majority. But California’s law eliminated the geographic concentration requirement and prohibits any at-large election if it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice.”
The CVRA was the brainchild of two identity politics lawyers, Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila and Robert Rubin, former legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area. Since most California cities, school boards, and other public bodies were elected at-large prior to 2002, the new law opened a lucrative new opportunity for lawyers: Bringing CVRA lawsuits that have cost taxpayers millions.
The latest cities to be caught in the CVRA net include Anaheim, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Whittier – which recently elected a Portuguese immigrant to its City Council, but who wasn’t Latino enough, apparently, to suit the Whittier Latino Coalition. Santa Clara was threatened by the LCCR in 2011, but no lawsuit was ever brought.