School board approves trustee-area map
on November 19, 2018
The West Contra Costa Unified School Board finally selected a trustee-area map on Wednesday night, moving closer to dividing the district into voting areas for future school board members and nearer to settling a lawsuit that alleges violations of a California law against discrimination in voting.
The board indicated a preference for what’s called the Oct. B map, one of six possible maps of voting areas offered at the meeting. Board members Valerie Cuevas, Tom Panas and Mister Phillips voted in favor of the map, with Elizabeth Block and Madeline Kronenberg abstaining.
The final map will divide the district into five separate voting areas, each of which will elect one board member in future elections. This area-based system will replace the current at-large elections where school board winners are determined by a district-wide popular vote.
The next step for the board is to decide whether to take the map for approval to the Contra Costa County Commission on School District Organization, which is made up of the members of the Contra Costa Board of Education. Otherwise, the question of how to divide up the district could be resolved through the litigation process. The commission rejected a previous map proposal in July, citing possible gerrymandering, questioning whether the district had appropriately considered communities of interest and complaining about a lack of public involvement in the mapping process.
“It’s a power struggle, so let’s get real,” board president Cuevas said at the Wednesday night meeting, referring to how the mapping process has played out.
“All I care about is empowering local voters to get as close to picking who they want to represent them.”
The district was compelled to switch systems because it was sued in March over its at-large elections, which allegedly violated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. That law made it easier for minority groups to prove vote dilution in at-large elections.
The district school board map approved Wednesday doesn’t fulfill the settlement requirement that one district be majority Latino and one be as close to majority black as possible.
Linda Ruiz-Lozito, the plaintiff in the case, a Richmond resident and active parent in the district schools, argued that even if she were to accept the map, the district could face further litigation if the Latino and black district conditions remain unfulfilled.
Her attorney, Scott Rafferty, said at the meeting that they were willing to make some compromises.
Two versions of a map submitted by Ruiz-Lozito were included in the selection process. Her maps focused on fulfilling the settlement conditions and created one district with about a 50 percent Latino population in San Pablo and another with a roughly 45 percent African-American population in Richmond.
These percentages were determined by the number of eligible voters. The district populations are based upon the 2010 census, and the maps will have to be redrawn in 2021, after the 2020 census.
Marcus Walton, the district communications director, said at the meeting that no independent study has been conducted to determine if voting discrimination exists in the district.
Proponents of trustee-area elections argue that they will provide stronger minority representation. Trustee-areas can potentially also diminish special interest group influence over elections. A grass-roots campaign may be more possible when a candidate only needs funding to run in one smaller geographical area, as opposed to covering the entire district.
Opponents argue that redistricting may have little to no impact on representation. Some see the flurry of similar lawsuits as indicative of lawyers looking to cash in. Losing school districts can be required to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff—as is the case here.
The Nov. 6 election, although it was at-large, resulted in the election of three Latina members—Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis, Valerie Cuevas, and Consuelo Lara.
Early in the year, Rafferty, the plaintiff’s attorney, had noted that three of the five members of the board were white representatives from El Cerrito, which, according to the letter, represents less than 10 percent of the district.
But two of those members, Block and Kronenberg, lost in the most recent election, and Wednesday was their final meeting.
Board member Tom Panas and the plaintiff Ruiz-Lozito both argued that the recent election results don’t negate the need for redistricting.
A condition of the settlement will place the newly elected board members into two-year terms instead of the usual four years. This condition was established so that district elections can occur for all five seats during the 2020 election, and no at-large elected members will remain on the board.
Though the lawsuit was settled for the most part during a September board meeting, the selection of a trustee map to divide up the voting areas has taken more time. Eight public meetings have been held in an effort to reach agreement on a map.
The recent three October meetings drew as many as 55 attendees.
Board members and the public were split at Wednesday’s meeting over how to proceed. Rafferty, the plaintiff’s attorney, argued for the necessity of the map achieving as closely as possible the Latino and African American districts, suggesting the case would land back in court unless the racial issues were addressed.
“I don’t think you want to do this again, in two years. You really don’t,” Rafferty, the plaintiff’s attorney, said at the meeting. “It takes time away from what you should be doing to help kids.”
Richmond resident Don Gosney complained that the public mappings meetings were called with minimum public notice. He noted that at one meeting, members of the public spent 45 minutes complaining about a lack of outreach.
“When I look at these maps, I see chaos,” Gosney said.
Gosney noted that the three map planning meetings were held in centrally located areas—Riverside Elementary School, Stege Elementary School and The Latina Center—resulting in a lack of participation from other district communities.
Gosney also complained about the lack of overlap in the trustee-area maps with school attendance areas. The current maps under consideration allow board members to represent areas with different demographics from their school zones.
He urged the board to slow down.
“Nothing can go into effect until the next election, yet the board and staff seem so anxious to recklessly rush to a decision,” Gosney said.
Board members Kronenberg and Block favored leaving the map selection to the incoming board.
But district school Superintendent Matthew Duffy and board member Panas argued that the pressures of the situation were more financial than legal.
Panas made the motion to accept the Oct. B map because substantial time and money had already been spent on the lawsuit that he believed would be better used to support students.
“We’re in the middle of a lawsuit, and even worse, we’re paying the lawyers on both sides of the case,” Panas said.
“I think we should stop investing staff time in this case and start investing staff time in supporting our students.”
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