At its Jan. 19 special meeting, the Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) unanimously approved a resolution that it intends to change the district’s system for electing its Board of Trustees to by-district from the current from-district and multi-member trustee area system.
The resolution gives the District a 90-day “safe harbor” from litigation under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The 2002 law addresses the dynamic of at-large elections systems to “dilute” the votes of protected minorities, blocking minorities from equal representation — regardless of whether or not such dilution is deliberate — and makes it easier to bring voting rights lawsuits. The law applies only to at-large systems.
The CVRA eliminates the federal requirement that minorities group have sufficient population to form a minority-majority election district. Under both federal and state law any systems with at-large components such as multi-member districts and from-district representation —are considered at-large systems.
Currently, SCUSD has three trustee areas, two of which have multiple seats. While trustees must live in the areas they represent, they are elected by all the school district’s voters. This system is vulnerable to a CVRA lawsuit, but single-member trustee areas are not.
The board currently includes only one member of a minority group, despite the fact that a majority of the district’s population is Asian or Hispanic.
The last time SCUSD considered changing the trustee election system was 2014. However, the very recent example of the City of Santa Clara’s disastrous decision to fight a CVRA lawsuit surely played a role.
Santa Clara faces $3.2 million in plaintiffs’ legal fees — plus $850,000 in its own legal bills — plus interest from 2018 and additional costs for the appeal. No public agency has ever won a CVRA lawsuit.
The fact that the City of Santa Clara — which accounts for most of the school district — was found in violation of the CVRA would be considered relevant to any voting rights litigation against SCUSD, explained attorney Jonathan Salt who gave a presentation on the CVRA to the Board on Jan. 19.
All of the trustees agreed the district needed to make the change, some for different reasons.
The current districts are the relics of the three school districts that became Santa Clara Unified in 1966: Old Santa Clara Elementary, Old Jefferson Union Elementary and Old Alviso Elementary, said Area 1 Trustee Jim Canova.
“Trustee Area 1 in 1966 had the smallest student population,” he said. “Today we have the biggest growth but we still only have one seat. Trustee Areas 2 and 3 have seen student declines and yet they have the largest number of seats.”
“I wanted the public to know that we’re not doing this because we want to do this,” said Area 3 Trustee Andy Ratermann, who characterized the change as “taking 6/7ths of the public’s voice away.” The reason for doing this, he said, was “because if we don’t do this we’ll be faced with multi-million dollar lawsuits [which] wouldn’t be good for the kids.”
The only question was whether the change should be made by ballot measure or legislatively via a California Department of Education (CDE) waiver that would expedite the change and save SCUSD the cost of an election.
“To not let the voters take a vote, to me feels undemocratic,” said Canova. “The present system was voted on by the voters. We don’t have a choice — we must do this [change to single member trustee areas]…we have to maximize the participation of the voters.”
“I agree with Trustee Canova that want to get as much voter input as possible, getting as much community input as possible,” said Area 3 Trustee Michele Ryan.
“But I don’t think, since we have to make this change, we should go to the expense of going to an election. We need to pursue the alternative to having an election.”
Ultimately, the Board agreed to approve the motion including the intention to request a CDE waiver, with the understanding that the “intention” to ask for a waiver wasn’t a binding commitment, and the Board would review the question after they heard from the community.
“It’s time for us to move forward,” said Area 2 Trustee Vickie Fairchild. “In this resolution we are just saying that we’re starting the process.”
The next step for the district is holding two public meetings in the next 30 days to receive public advice on composing the new trustee area map.
Following that, a demographer will develop potential maps, and the Board will hold three public hearings on the maps, determining the sequence of elections. After the Board chooses a map, the County Committee on School District Organization must approve it.
The final step is putting the change on the ballot for voter approval, or requesting a waiver from the CDE to make the change without an election.
In the last two years, two of Santa Clara’s other school districts — Campbell Union K-8 and Campbell Union High School District —moved to single-member trustee areas, using the CDE’s waiver provision.