Mister Phillips and Tom Panas at the School Board Meeting

A final trustee-area map emerges as lawsuit resolves

on March 7, 2019

On Wednesday, the West Contra Costa Board of Education revealed a final trustee-area map that will determine how local voters choose school board members, which is a resolution to a costly lawsuit that has beleaguered board meetings for about a year.

The final map for trustee-areas.
The final map of trustee-areas. Interactive Version (Courtesy WCCUSD)

For years, the West Contra Costa County Unified School District (WCCUSD) has used at-large elections, in which board members are decided by a district-wide popular vote. In this system, voters from any city in the school district can vote for a candidate from any region.

But last year Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty filed a lawsuit, alongside his plaintiff Linda Ruiz-Lozito, a Richmond artist and longtime education advocate who had once before attempted to implement trustee-areas in the district. They argued—with election and demographic datathat the current system is racially polarized. Their suit asserted that changing the voting system would result in better representation, which would increase confidence in the district from minority groups and potentially stymie the growth of racially-segregated charter schools.

Rafferty based his lawsuit on the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA), which made it easier for minority groups to argue that at-large voting leads to racial polarization by lowering the threshold of proof needed to determine that polarization. “This is fundamentally a long-term reform,” Rafferty said at the meeting. “It’s about empowering voters, particularly voters of protected groups.”

Rafferty sought to establish trustee-area elections, in which voters elect one representative from their local area. Proponents of this system argue that campaigning in one area could be less costly than campaigning across the entire district, lowering the financial barriers to candidacy and possibly making outside funding less necessary.

Opponents have downplayed these possible benefits, arguing that they are largely unproven. They have also expressed concerns that lawyers can profit from litigating against school districts or cities that refuse to make the switch to trustee-area voting. Lawyers send demand letters, which include demographic studies, which are used as the basis to prove that the voting process has been racially polarized. If a district concedes to a demand letter, they are required to pay the attorney who sent it up to $30,000 for their demographic study or other work involved in writing the demand letter. If a district doesn’t respond to the letter in 45 days, the gates open for a lawsuit.

(No independent study of racial polarization in the WCCUSD district has ever been conducted, according to Marcus Walton, the school district’s communications director.)

Hundreds of districts and cities have made the shift, prompted—or not—by a demand letter.

As of May 5 of last year, none had ever managed to win a CVRA lawsuit and avoid the shift to trustee-area voting, according to a presentation by James L. Markman, a city attorney for several cities, Youstina N. Aziz, associate of Richards, Watson and Gershon, and Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, at the League of California Cities.

If a district or city loses a CVRA case—as happened in the WCCUSD’s case when they settled in August of last year—they must pay the attorney fees for both sides. In this case, it amounts to an estimated overall cost of $538,600. Rafferty will be paid roughly $310,000 by the district, according to the settlement agreement.  

Though the legal issues have for the most part been settled since the partial settlement in August, the final phase has been deciding upon a map. The WCCUSD’s new, and final, map splits the district into five areas and will be implemented for the first time in 2020, when, as a condition of the settlement, all five board seats open up for election.

The map, known as the January Map, was agreed upon in a 4-0-1 vote by the board in a closed session meeting on February 28, with board member Mister Phillips abstaining. The map was designed through negotiations between the district and Ruiz-Lozito. Both sides considered prior public feedback, represented in the map chosen in November. The January Map was approved by a Contra Costa County Superior judge on Wednesday, and further details of the settlement were presented at a board meeting later in the day.

The previous map, selected by the board on Nov. 14 (Courtesy WCCUSD)

The January Map was designed to fulfill a settlement requirement that one district have a Latino majority, and another be as close to a Black majority as possible. Area 1 covers Hercules and Pinole and is about 36 percent Asian American, according to voter registration numbers from 2016. Area 1 covers most of Richmond, including North Richmond, and is 44 percent Black. Area 3 takes up San Pablo and is 53 percent Latino. Area 4, at 41 percent white, includes El Sobrante and a great deal of sparsely-populated land, while Area 5 combines El Cerrito, the Richmond Marina and Point Richmond and is 69 percent white.  

The settlement includes two-year—as opposed to the normal four-year—terms for board members elected in 2018 so that all five seats will be open for the 2020 shift to trustee-areas. Election staggering will also be implemented: Board members elected in 2020 to Areas 1, 2, and 3 (which are made up of primarily minority populations), will have four-year terms, while the majority-white Areas 4 and 5 will have two-year terms.

The settlement also establishes an independent redistricting commission, which will be responsible for redrawing the map over time to reflect demographic changes. This commission will redraw the map in 2021, using 2020 census data and a system to gather community input. The commission will include seven people appointed by a retired judge—selected by Rafferty and the school district’s attorneys. Of the seven, one will be pulled from each trustee area, and two will reside in Contra Costa County outside the district. The nomination and selection of commission members will occur in early 2021, and a newly recommended map will be available on January 1, 2022, according to a district presentation.

Deciding upon a map has been a contentious process that has lasted more than a year. The board has selected three different maps in that time period. The first, which came after several public meetings with low audience turnout, was rejected by the Contra Costa County Committee on School District Reorganization for lack of community input, among other reasons. The second, devised after a set of better-attended public meetings, was recommended in November, though the board acknowledged their approval of that map was only a recommendation, and that either the county committee or a court would have the final say. That meeting was the last time the public saw a map before Wednesday’s meeting.

Several public commenters, including Rafferty, thanked the board for approving the map. “People in the county want this,” Rafferty said. “They want to have elected officials in their neighborhoods.”

But some contention remained. Richmond resident Don Gosney said the January Map “in no way resembles” the map chosen previously by the board in November. “Once the board made their decision on November 14th, communication went silent, and, without input from the community, the map was redrawn,” Gosney said. “We’re talking apples and kumquats here, not even apples and oranges.”

Most board members expressed relief that the process was over. Board member Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis said that though she didn’t think the boundaries were perfect, she felt the map was a step in the right direction. Board member Consuelo Lara spoke briefly to affirm her “yes” vote. “This was a terrible waste of energy and resources,” Lara said.

Phillips said he abstained from voting because he believes that the vote should have occurred in public. “This is not the kind of thing that you just do and get it over with,” Phillips said. “This will affect this district, the people in this district, the adults, the parents, the children—this will affect people for generations to come.”

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