West County school board grapples still with redrawing voting districts
on September 8, 2018
Members of the West Contra Costa County School Board wrestled again at their meeting Wednesday over how to achieve the final step in a contentious voting change for the school district: mapping out the voting areas.
Though the board made no official motion to resolve the issue, a long and occasionally heated conversation ended with a direction to Superintendent Matthew Duffy to come up with a plan and insert it on the upcoming Sept. 26 meeting agenda. The board will then continue to discuss the issue and perhaps also act on it.
The meeting Wednesday reflected the enduring difficulty the board has faced in drawing districts for the upcoming shift to trustee-area elections. These district-based elections will separate school board voting between five yet-to-be-drawn districts and replace the current at-large system, where board members are determined by countywide popular vote. The upcoming 2018 elections will still be run at-large, but the newly elected board members will serve for only two years, as opposed to the normal four, leaving every seat open when the system switches in 2020.
The change in voting is due to a partially settled lawsuit that alleges the district’s at-large system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by giving white candidates unfair advantages in wealthier areas of the county. The trustee-area map, which has previously run through five public hearings and been rejected, is the only aspect of the change that needs to be finished for the lawsuit to be completely settled.
Proponents of trustee-area maps say a major benefit they can bring is increased diversity. One way this may occur is through a lowering of financial barriers. For instance, candidates wouldn’t have to pay as much money to campaign in their districts instead of the entire county.
In West Contra Costa, in particular, the board will almost certainly be diversified by having only one representative from each area. Currently, some parts of the county are overrepresented. For example, three members of the current board reside in El Cerrito, a region representing only 10 percent of the district population, according to the lawsuit.
Perspectives on the issue varied at the meeting. Some members of the West Contra Costa Parents Council stood before the board during public comment and called for the approval of an earlier districting plan called the June 4th Map, named for the date it was created.
The school board voted 3-2 to approve a different map on June 27 that was later rejected by the Contra Costa County Committee on School District Organization.
The parents council also handed the board a petition containing 600 supporting signatures, topped by a screenshot of an online petition that called for adoption of the “June 4th Map.” The online petition claims: “More community members preferred the June 4 map over other maps during public comment” at the school district map hearings.
Board member Tom Panas spoke of wasted time — the lawsuit has been going on since March — and argued for an expedited meeting process, even with elections soon approaching.
“It’s so clearly laid out in California law,” Panas said. “No one has ever avoided going to district elections.”
But board member Mister Phillips spoke against an expedited process, and instead argued for a process involving the public as much as possible.
Though required public hearings on the issue have already been held, several other board members also spoke to the importance of including the public in the mapping process.
“We need to find a way to get more people to pay attention to this issue,” board member Elizabeth Block said.
According to attorney Harold M. Freiman, who represents the district, the board could face additional litigation — either from the attorney Scott Rafferty who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, or elsewhere — if they move too slowly or too quickly in resolving the issue. Before moving on from the item, board president Valerie Cuevas argued for the benefits of going both fast and slow, of “letting folks know what our plan is going to be before executing it.”
“We’re going to continue to make sure the community has a say in this map,” Cuevas said.
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