The Santa Clara Unified School District Board of Trustees decided in January to start the process to completely update its six-decade-old election system to protect itself from potential lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
Transition to by-Trustee Area Election
At a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25, the Board discussed changing the District’s system for electing its Board of Trustees to by-district from the current from-district and multi-member trustee area system. Because the District currently has multi-member trustee areas, it is in danger of being sued under the CVRA for using a system that dilutes the protected minorities, blocking minorities from equal representation. The City of Santa Clara recently lost a multimillion-dollar CVRA lawsuit — they now use single member election districts.
District Counsel, Jonathan Salt from Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP said that the District would hold at least two meetings in September for community engagement and feedback before even drawing the maps— additionally, Census data will probably be available in September. Then, a demographer would draw up map options that would be shared with the community. There would then be three more meetings to gather community feedback and preferences — changes can be made to the proposed maps. After that, in December, the Board would approve a final map. Next, the County would need to approve the map.
After the map is approved, the Board has two options, according to Salt, they could hold an election for the voters to approve the changes or they could go to the State Board of Education and apply for a waiver to bypass voter approval. The waiver process is very common and, it’s not controversial, says Salt.
The first big topic up for consideration was if the Board wanted to consider reducing the number of members from the current seven to five. This idea didn’t seem to interest the Board. Many Board Members said they were grateful to have varying perspectives that a larger group has.
The one aspect to consider is if the District would be able to find a candidate in each of the seven Trustee Areas — Board Members didn’t think that would be a problem. Board Member Dr. Michele Ryan pointed out that changing the election system would make it more affordable because candidates wouldn’t have to reach out to the whole District anymore, just their much smaller Trustee Area.
Though the majority of the Board said they preferred the current seven-member makeup, Board Member Jim Canova wanted public input on this decision and Board Member Andy Ratermann wanted to hear more about the pros and cons. This will come back to a future Board meeting as an action item.
Secondly, the Board needs to decide whether it intends to apply for waivers to speed up the process and bypass elections. At these elections, they would place a measure on the ballot asking voters if they wanted to change the election system and, if the Board wanted to go that direction, whether they wanted to reduce the Board from seven to five members.
Elections can be pricey, and the Board basically has no choice but to change their election system. Holding an election wasn’t very popular amongst most of the Board. However, Trustees who have been on the Board the longest were not a fan of skipping an election, saying it wasn’t fair to the voters and wasn’t democratic.
“Don’t give me this nonsense about the money that it costs to get voter input, that’s nonsense… [the voters] need to have a huge stake in this decision,” said Canova, adding that they need to respect the voters and give them a say because this is a huge decision.
Ratermann agreed. He said they should take their time to do this even if there are delays and consequences.
The rest of the Board supported the move to use a waiver and bypassing an election stating that they need to change their election system due to the CVRA, and delaying it doesn’t make much sense. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in this topic. There was no public comment on this agenda item.
“As someone who has been out talking to voters for three elections in a row, the vast majority of voters don’t pay very much attention to School Board,” said Ryan. “They would probably be surprised to learn that they don’t already vote [by Trustee Area] anyway.”
Ryan pointed out that the cities they draw from — San Jose and now Santa Clara and Sunnyvale — now all have single member voting districts, so voters are already using this election system and are familiar with the change.
Board Member Albert Gonzalez asked Salt what would happen if they did take the change to the voters and they voted it down.
“If the community votes down the change… you’re right back where you were two months ago and someone can just say ‘Ok well we think your current election system violates the CVRA’ and they could force you to do and make you do it a lot faster,” said Salt.
Many Board Members pointed out that even if they don’t hold an election, they are getting the community involved. They are having at least five community meetings about this and they have the option to add more meetings.
“Voting does not necessarily give you a more informed choice,” said Gonzalez.
The Board didn’t make any decisions, and this will come back to a future meeting. A webpage with details about the CVRA is live and there is an email for questions.
It’s possible that if COVID-19 numbers trend towards the best-case scenario, Santa Clara County may move into the Red Tier as early as next Wednesday and then may move into Orange Tier as early as March 24. A week after that, the District would begin its phased in-person instruction. The District is already preparing for the soonest possible reopening date.
“We’re gonna prepare for in-person instruction for as many students as we can following the state and the county public health guidelines,” said Superintendent Dr. Stella Kemp, adding that they will need to be nimble to make rapid moves when needed.
Vaccines for education workers are opening up on March 1 and Kemp said the Board will have more news about a possible streamlined process next week.
Schools are also still doing outreach to prioritized families who have not completed the Family Preference Survey — which collected preferences on staying in Distance Learning or moving into Hybrid Learning. Final statistics will be brought to the next Board meeting, but right now they have a 71 percent completion rate and, so far, 40 percent of families wish to return to campus. Return status letters to families that wanted to return to in-person learning will be sent March 10 – 12.
The Board unanimously approved to submit a ballot with six candidates to serve as delegates to the CSBA Delegate Assembly. Board Clerk Bonnie Liberman presented the six candidate names: Danielle Cohen, Devon Conley, David Guidry, Andres Quintero, George Sanchez and Fiona Walter.
The District approved the addition of the following courses for the 2021-2022 school year: Phoenix 1,2,3,4 (Grades 9-12, MECHS) and Financial Investing (Grades 11-12, Wilcox).
Kemp also mentioned that the Middle School Math Acceleration Assessment that was discussed at the previous meeting is going to be administered to 5th graders.
The Board will meet next on Thursday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m.