West Contra Costa school board will soon release its trustee-area map after a year of controversy
on December 17, 2018
A lawsuit calling upon the West Contra Costa Unified School Board to change the way it is elected in order to better represent minority voters has dominated meetings for the past year.
Soon, the process will be over. A yet-to-be-finalized trustee-area map will be decided upon, splitting the school district into five voting areas for future elections.
Trustee-area voting will replace the current at-large system, where board members are determined by district-wide popular vote. Residents of each voting area will be responsible for electing one trustee to represent their interests on the school board.
Two of the established areas are expected to be minority districts: a majority Latino district in San Pablo and the other as-close-to-majority African American as possible in Richmond. After the districts have been decided, every school board seat will be opened for the 2020 election.
The journey toward the new voting system in the school district began in 2002, when the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 was enacted, making it easier for minority groups to prove at-large elections dilute their vote. Though most California elections have historically been held at-large, the voting rights act has caused a surge of lawsuits in recent years, either threatened or real, prompting more than 100 school districts and cities to shift to trustee-area elections.
A group in Richmond, unaware of the voting rights act, began advocating in 2008 to change the way school board members were elected so members of minority groups had a stronger voice. That group, known as the Citizens for Positive Education, petitioned the county board to put a proposal to change to trustee-area elections onto an upcoming ballot.
The efforts of the citizens’ group failed, however, and the issue only reemerged this year when a Walnut Creek lawyer teamed up in a lawsuit with Linda Ruiz-Lozito, who a decade earlier had been a member of the citizens’ group.
In the decade since Ruiz-Lozito and the citizens’ group tried to change the voting system, proponents of making the switch had won a string of victories statewide. Indeed, no school governing body has thus far managed to defend the status quo against a lawsuit alleging a violation of the voting rights act. In some areas, the governing body has conceded to an attorney’s letter of demand by making a commitment to shift to trustee areas—while also reimbursing the plaintiff’s attorney up to $30,000 for demographic studies or other work involved in writing the demand letter.
In other areas, governing bodies have chosen to contest in court the allegations of racial polarization. When they’ve lost in court—and no one yet has won—they have paid the legal fees not only of their own attorneys but also of the opposition, which often adds up to millions of dollars.
Ruiz-Lozito, the plaintiff in the case against the West Contra Costa school district, has a long history as a district parent, resident, artist and education advocate. In 2008, she collected hundreds of signatures for trustee-areas as part of the citizens group. The group held small public meetings at the Round Table Pizza restaurant and the Easter Hill Church in Richmond.
Group members gathered more than 1,700 signatures and received a public hearing from the Contra Costa County Committee on School District Organization—a body made up of members of the Contra Costa County Board of Education. Almost 40 individuals spoke at the July 2, 2008 meeting, and perspectives during public comment were evenly split either for or against inserting the item on the ballot, according to the Contra Costa Times newspaper.
Proponents of the petition argued that trustee-area candidates would need less money to run in elections, that areas with historically less board representation could gain more, and that voters within each trustee-area would feel more motivated to be politically engaged by having their own representative, according to the Contra Costa Times.
Opponents at the meeting argued that area elections would destroy unity, be costly to implement and that an upcoming parcel tax was more important; they argued the insertion of trustee-areas on the ballot could potentially confuse voters.
Ruiz-Lozito said she was surprised by the amount of previously unseen resistance that materialized at the meeting. Several city officials, former city officials and even a representative from former California state Senator Lori Hancock’s office arrived to either voice opposition or request that the item not be considered until after the parcel tax vote was settled.
None of them had appeared at meetings to talk about the issue earlier, said Ruiz-Lozito.
The 2008 attempt to establish trustee-areas as a ballot-item fizzled. After a 4-1 vote, county board members said they understood the intent of the petition, but they agreed with the concerns about voter confusion damaging the chances of passing the parcel tax.
Ruiz-Lozito said she had no knowledge of the state voting rights act at the time. There had been no lawsuit filed or threatened, and the voting rights act was not invoked by the group. If the act had been referenced, the district might have been forced to make the switch to trustee-areas almost a decade ago.
Ruiz-Lozito and the group’s rationale for advocating for the switch to trustee-areas remained a live issue in the district. As one of her efforts to bring awareness to the benefits trustee-areas, Ruiz-Lozito wrote a letter to the Contra Costa Times, published April 23, 2008.
“Currently, there are five elected school board members who control this large district and the education of our students,” Ruiz-Lozito wrote. “Three of the five school board members are from the same neighborhood. As a parent of two children in the school district, I do not feel this creates balanced representation for most of our schoolchildren.”
Her concerns were echoed on January 22 this year in a demand letter, sent by the Walnut Creek-based attorney Scott Rafferty, which alleged violations of the voting rights act. Rafferty has sent numerous such demand letters across California in recent years, including to the cities of Antioch and Concord.
For a fee of $30,000, and a commitment to move to trustee-area elections, the board could have elected to settle the case at that time.
In his letter, Rafferty wrote that three of the five school board members were white and from El Cerrito, an area representing less than 10 percent of a district in which 89 percent of students are minorities, according to the letter. He analyzed election patterns, claimed the district had a history of minority underrepresentation, and concluded that, “there is a consistent pattern that most minority candidates receive strong support from those precincts with larger minority populations, but are unable to prevail at large.”
“In this case, districting is an effective and legally required remedy.”
With charts and graphs, Rafferty argued that there was racially profiled voting, which “occurs when some candidates preferred by one race or language group receive a higher level of support from that group than from the electorate at-large.”
Rafferty argued that trustee-areas would lead to greater accountability and community confidence, possibly stemming the growth of racially segregated charter schools. He also asserted that there was an economic benefit to district elections. Ballots would not have to be prepared in every voting area each time.
The school district’s communications director Marcus Walton has said at board meetings that no independent study of racial polarization in the district has ever been conducted. The voting rights act does not require such a study or determination of racial polarization.
Rafferty’s letter also illustrated how election systems have shifted in the state since 2008, when no other school districts in the county, and few in the state, had switched to trustee-areas.
“Except for Irvine, no city with a larger population elects its council at large,” Rafferty wrote. “Of the 29 school districts in California that are larger than WCCUSD, all but nine elect trustees by district,” he said, referring to the West Contra Costa school district.
He went on to say that, “At least 125 smaller school boards have been districted as a result” of voting rights lawsuits, “or by preemptive orders from the county board of education (or committee on school district organization).”
But however strong his legal arguments, Rafferty still needed a plaintiff. Ruiz-Lozito says she reached out to him because she was still concerned about the lack of representation from districts with more minority residents, and she informed him that she would be his plaintiff if he couldn’t find anyone else.
The board had 45 days to respond to Rafferty’s demand letter before he could file a lawsuit.
On March 7 of this year, 44 days after the letter, the board still hadn’t voted to establish intent to switch. The vote on making the switch was 1-4, with only board member Madeline Kronenberg voting in favor. According to the March 27 meeting minutes, “there were procedural questions and resulting confusion about the motion on the floor.” This resulted in the board failing to indicate it intended to switch to trustee-area elections. Instead, some members of the board suggested that it send the issue to the ballot for voters to decide.
But two weeks later, the board changed its mind, voting to reconsider its intent to transition to trustee area. The board went on to vote 4-1 indicating it would commit to making the transition happen.
But another vote was necessary before the board could withdraw the issue from the public vote that had earlier been planned. The board failed by a 2-3 vote to approve the waiver, effectively leaving the switch to trustee-areas up to the public vote. Board members Valerie Cuevas and Tom Panas voted for the waiver, while Kronenberg, Block and Phillips voted against.
Though the ballot vote ultimately didn’t happen because the board was unable to meet certain required deadlines, school attorney Harold Freiman warned at the meeting if the ballot vote struck down trustee-areas, it could be taken as further evidence of racial polarization, and the district would then have been potentially open to more litigation.
But the fact that the issue appeared to be headed to the ballot box prompted Rafferty to file a lawsuit against the district on March 21. Ruiz-Lozito and Ayana Young, a black Hercules-based lawyer who ran for school board in 2014, were noted as plaintiffs. (Young would later drop out of the lawsuit and oppose maps proposed by Rafferty and Ruiz-Lozito.)
Rafferty claimed, among other things, that the former district superintendent Bruce Harter—who retired in 2016 as the second-longest serving superintendent in district history—should have known that racially polarized voting likely existed in the district, and should have known that the voting rights act required a transition to trustee-areas.
Harter also should have known, according to the lawsuit, that the California State Board of Education has always allowed governing bodies to bypass the ballot box in order to change to trustee-area voting districts, in effect undercutting the main argument that had been used to stop the momentum toward making the switch in 2008.
The district then held five public hearings and four informational sessions to gather input from the community on the mapping process. A map, ultimately, would need to be approved by the county education board before the issue could be decided by voters in November.
Drawing the map became a contentious, still-not-decided process that could reach into 2019.
The first five informational meetings drew fewer than ten people each, according to Walton, the school district’s communication director. At these meetings, Cuevas and Panas were the only board members present.
On June 27, the board selected a map, with Cuevas and Panas voting against it.
One month later, on July 24, the map came for approval before the County Committee on School District Organization, which rejected the map after about 30 members of the public spoke against approval.
The lawsuit was partially settled on August 30. The settlement said that the three seats that were to be contested in the November at-large election would have two-year terms. The 2020 elections would also immediately set in place the staggering of board elections: two or three of the five seats would be contested in the 2020 election for four year terms, while the others would be for two-year terms.
On Sept. 26, the final details of the settlement were decided. The adopted map would have a majority Latino district and an as-close-to-majority-as-possible African American district. The largest minority population districts would have four-year terms and the remaining two areas would have two-year terms.
The district put together 10 guidelines, four required by law, to shape the creation of the new maps. These included a requirement that the trustee areas be as equal in population as possible. They also indicated the goal of minority districts, determined by voter registration numbers. At the same time, another legal condition requires that the boundaries can’t be gerrymandered primarily on the basis of race.
Then the mapping process was repeated at three additional meetings at the end of October. As many as 55 people attended them, and every board member made at least one appearance.
At the conclusion of the latest process, at the Nov. 14 board meeting, the board voted to indicate a preference for a different map. Several people who commented during the public comment period had said they weren’t happy with the process, but that they supported a map known as the Oct. B map because they said it seemed like the best among the selection.
The chosen map does not at present meet the minority district requirement, according to Ruiz-Lozito. If that requirement isn’t met, the district could be open to further litigation.
Board members Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis and Consuelo Lara, who were elected in the November ballot, joined re-elected winner Cuevas on the new board on Dec. 5. All three newly elected board members are Latino.
The new board will redraw the map in 2021, using 2020 census data.
Ruiz-Lozito’s said her feelings on the process have been mixed, but she said she’d been inspired by the enthusiasm of the parents, particularly those on the West Contra Costa Parents Council, a predominantly Latino group.
“The parents have so much heart and soul,” she said.
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