WSCUHSD in early mapping stages for switch to trustee-area elections

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, September 18, 2021

The WSCUHSD is back to meeting in person again.

The switch to a by-trustee area election method is underway at West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD), inviting community feedback on mapping voting areas at its first public hearing on Sept. 14.

Only two such “pre-map” public hearings are scheduled for the public to share what neighborhoods, roadways and other elements belong in the same trustee voting areas before a demographer drafts maps of potential boundary lines. The next, and last, is Oct. 13.

The transition to the trustee-area election system takes full effect over time, after the originally elected board members complete their full terms and general board elections come and go.

“Since you have five trustees, the district will be divided into five roughly equal population areas and one trustee will be elected from each area, only by the folks who live in that area,” said Jonathan Salt, a lawyer with Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP.

While the district’s current at-large election system allows voters living anywhere in the district to elect any candidate to join the school board, the by-trustee area system calls for a demographer to divide the district into trustee areas where a candidate of each zone gets elected only by the voters living in the same area. This is intended to safeguard the ability of protected classes — such as Latinx communities — to influence the outcome of an election.

As for the pre-map public hearings, Salt said, “You all know your community better than we do, and so this is the opportunity to tell us, before the demographer draws maps, what makes sense here.”

After the pre-map public hearings, the demographer will draft three or four map options in mid-to-late October that will be posted on the district’s website and circulated through school so people can speak on their likes and dislikes for each map, the attorney said. The demographer will need to draw the maps using 2020 Census data, expected to be approved and released by the state by the end of the month.

From there, three more public hearings will take place with presentations of each map and its data for board and community feedback again. Salt said that after the last public hearing, the school board is slated on Dec. 15 to vote for one map to become the district’s official trustee-area map plan, due then to the county for approval. Each meeting will include a general overview of the process for any newcomers, he said.

The school board decided to begin transitioning toward a trustee-area election system in February 2021 after community members reminded trustees it’s the only safe harbor from claims and litigation related to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

Salt said that the CVRA differs from the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 in that “a district or a city or a county doesn’t have to intend to violate the CVRA or prohibit the protected classes from influencing the election in order to be found in violation” for a potential plaintiff to file a claim.

Unlike a district or city that beats a claim in court, a successful plaintiff is granted recovery for expert and attorney’s fees in a CVRA lawsuit, he said.

Comments or questions from the public?

Despite the recently fervent but failed recall campaign to oust trustees who voted to uphold consolidation, few spoke at the public hearing on how they wanted to see voting areas drawn that could potentially shift how the community is represented on the board.

Superintendent Toni Beal read one public comment from a community member, who suggested considering elementary feeder district bounds when drawing up maps for potential voting areas. She also requested in her message that the district get more word out about the Oct. 13 public hearing.

“If there is little feedback tonight, I hope that the district will consider adding another pre-map public hearing in order to gather as much feedback from the public as possible,” her comment read. The attorney said he would share her idea with the demographer.

Next, one attendee asked what happens if the boundaries are approved and no one runs for trustee and whether there would be a plan that offers remote attendance if someone living further out in the county ran for trustee, anticipating a long drive for every meeting.

If no one runs for trustee in a voting area after the map is finalized, “there’s a vacancy just like any other vacancy,” he said, except the board would need to appoint someone from that specific area, unless the board goes with a special election there instead.

“I’ll also say that folks tend to pay more attention once the maps are drawn. The maps are fluid when they are drawn, so we could come to the first map public hearing, and everyone can say, ‘I really hate all these,’ or ‘I like (Map) Two and I really wish we could move this line over,” the attorney said. “So, it’s not done once the maps are created.”

\Revisiting the trustee-area election method and rules

The top priority of the demographer once the pre-map public hearings are done is to draw trustee voting area boundaries so each area has as close to the same population size as possible, Salt said.

Using 2010 Census data as an example, the district’s past population of roughly 47,000 would have been split into five trustee areas with around 9,400 people in each, counting residents of any age or citizenship status, according to Salt. Back then, the Latinx community was the largest protected class in the district, he said.

The attorney stated the demographer will use Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) data, factoring in likely voters — citizens of voting age, not necessarily registered voters — with a map showing where they are concentrated.

Other criteria for the maps is the voting areas must be contiguous and also as compact as they can be, with no “fingers” as in gerrymandering, Salt said. The maps consider “communities of interest,” the attorney added, or what areas make sense to keep together or to split up.

Further, the attorney stated, “The maps cannot favor or discriminate against an incumbent. What that really means is that the demographer can look at where the current board members live, but a line drawn decision cannot be made based on that.”

The perimeter of the entire district will stay the same at the end of the election system transition, according to Salt. “All that changes is who can run for the board and when and who elects them,” he said, as trustees are still charged with serving the whole district.

 

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