California Voting Rights Act Discussion Spurs Board to Fund Demographic Study
For the last two months, Trustee Christopher Stampolis has been making the case that Santa Clara Unified’s trustee election system makes it a target for a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. And at last Thursday’s meeting, he almost seemed to be threatening to bring one himself.
In April he insinuated it into a discussion of district policy updates. At the May 8 meeting, it was part of the formal agenda. First in a presentation on the CVRA from Attorney William Tunick, and later in an action item to hire a demographer to evaluate whether the district has distinct ethnic voting blocks and whether their votes are diluted by the at-large elections.
Trustee area-limited elections would force the creation of multiple trustee areas to replace the existing three – a legacy of the district’s unification in 1965. SCUSD’s method – where candidates must live in the trustee area, but are elected at-large – is an unusual hybrid.
Following a long discussion of the question largely based on opinion – without a demographic study there was little information to inform that discussion – Stampolis finally decided to go for an end run and see if he could take his clear preference, by-trustee area elections, over the goal line right then and there.
“I’d like to motion that we transition to by-trustee area elections,” he said. “If we vote in favor of simply transitioning to by-trustee area elections…we immunize ourselves…To go to single member districts will result in some chopping up…[but’] I think it’s important to have ourselves on record as going to single member districts.”
This led to a parliamentary procedure spat.
Trustee Andy Ratermann asked Board President Christine Koltermann to rule Stampolis’ motion out of order. “I believe this would be a violation of the Brown Act,” he said.
Koltermann was on the same page. “The wording doesn’t match the agenda so the public couldn’t possibly know that this was going to be voted on,” she said, and asked the attorney to provide an opinion on the question of whether such a motion was properly noticed.
“The public would certainly be noticed under D-1,” retorted Stampolis. “If you’re ruling that the motion is out of order…I will be making parliamentary motions for the record so they can be used against the district.”
“The authority rests with the chair,” said Ratermann.
“It isn’t a motion, it’s a request,” answered Stampolis.
“It’s a motion,” said Ratermann.
Trustee Ina Bendis, who had seconded Stampolis’ motion, then withdrew her second. “As a maker of the motion I deny the withdrawal of the second,” said Stampolis.
Koltermann refused a vote, again asking the attorney for his opinion.
“As far as the Brown Act, G.5 says ‘to direct staff to contract a demographer,'” he replied. “These [agenda descriptions] would not have provided adequate notice.”
“In your view, if a CVRA lawsuit were to be filed in the next few days, what is our defendability?” asked Stampolis. “The West Valley Community College did do a complete study…and found they were vulnerable….Does that fact change your point of view.”
“That wouldn’t necessarily be definitive,” replied Tunick.
Additional perspective was offered by resident Tim Tower. “I’m truly surprised there’s a motion on the floor to change to trustee areas. I can’t imagine how the district could possibly pass a bond issue in November [under those circumstances].”
The board went on to approve the demographic study.
Changing Trustee Areas Would Dramatically Change Election Dynamics
While several board members denied the CVRA discussion had anything to do with politics in this year’s or future elections, the CVRA was deliberately designed to change the political landscape by assuring that “protected classes” can affect election outcomes, typically by drawing district boundaries in which they’re the majority.
It just takes some third grade math and elementary logic to see the impact in SCUSD. The current system has seven trustees and three trustee areas: one trustee from Area One, two from Area Three, and four from Area Two. Trustees must live in their trustee areas, but are elected at-large by the whole district.
In the 2012 SCUSD Board election, 52,863 votes were cast for two candidates. Assume that the number of people voting is around half, 26,432; making the winning number at least 13,217 votes. If the district were divided into seven trustee areas – let’s assume they’re equal – each area would have 3,776 voters and candidates would only need 1,889 votes to win – dramatically reducing cost and effort to win elections.
An alternative is larger areas and fewer trustees – then inevitably some people lose their seats. And if you’re drawing the boundaries, it’s an easy way change the political balance. Which comes full circle back to the CVRA’s aim.
Keeping the same areas with the same number of representatives wouldn’t likely be an option. Trustee areas represent the population in 1965. Today 1965’s smallest area – Old Alviso – is now the fastest growing. Under any reorganization it would demand more representation. Where would that come from? Probably Area Two, currently represented by Bendis, Koltermann, Stampolis and Trustee Albert Gonzalez.
“For me, area-only elections is a recipe for destroying the unity of a unified district,” said Trustee Jim Canova (Area One) after the meeting.
Open Enrollment: With Nothing Resolved Last Year, Same Discussion This Year
It’s Open Enrollment time again. Despite hours of discussion last year, no decisions were made – leaving the question about who gets preference (siblings and teachers’ children) and who doesn’t (everyone else) to continue this year. As is the case every year, the 700+ waiting list for Millikin Basics+ drew the most comment. (Washington Open, the other alternative school in the district, but with an educational philosophy diametrically opposed to Millikin’s, also had a significant wait list, but nothing compared to Millikin.)
The board’s comment however, was not to point out that Millikin’s self-selected population – with virtually no Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged, or special ed students – is naturally going to deliver high test scores, that make it attractive. Further, since Millikin is an alternative school and admission is by application only, it can hardly be compared to schools that must enroll everyone in their attendance areas.
Instead, the board response was to sing a familiar refrain: We need more Millikins.
At least one person noted that some board members’ infatuation with Millikin contradicted their frequent critique of what they perceive as the district’s inequity to the same groups that are absent from Millikin’s enrollment.
“What is the racial breakdown of this enrollment wait list data at Millikin and Washington Open?” asked parent Vickie Fairchild. “What are you going to do to help the protected classes have access to these schools or additional schools that you hope to create? Are you promoting segregation by class and race?”
Four students received recognition at the May 8 SCUSD board meeting. Millikin students Elise Kwan and Hana Harman McNierney were recognized for leadership activities, which they presented in a joint recitation; Haman second grader Kyle Campbell was recognized for exemplary academic effort; and Santa Clara High senior Damont Hardnett was honored for being a role model to fellow students. Hardnett also recently received a full college scholarship.