Is WSCUHSD in violation of the California Voting Rights Act?

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, January 25, 2021

District could pay estimated $70,000 for demographic study following letter

The West Sonoma County High School District (WSCUHSD) caught another rock in the rudder when some of El Molino High School’s most consistent and vocal advocates sent a letter to Superintendent Toni Beal saying they believed the district’s at-large trustee election method falls short of the purpose of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA).

Despite the group’s request that the letter be rescinded, the message set off a chain of events that could cost the district close to $70,000, according to Beal in a Jan. 22 interview with Sonoma West Times & News.

That estimate includes the cost of a demographic study, its associated legal fees and the legal services to address what she referred to as the original threat of a lawsuit, she said. According to Beal, the district would need to make more reductions to the 2022-23 school year budget to cover the cost of a study, though the upcoming second interim budget report would be unscathed.Beal said the district intends to bring the item to the Feb. 10 board meeting’s open session for trustees to consider a resolution on whether to proceed with the study. Doing nothing might technically be an option, she said, but the clock is ticking.

Beal said the district’s legal team explained during the closed session preceding the regular Jan. 20 board meeting that the opening volley triggers a timeline where the district has 45 days to act on the alleged CVRA violation while shielded from legal action, Beal said.

“But after the 45 days elapses, anyone can then sue the district,” she said. According to the superintendent, the countdown began when the district received the letter via email Jan. 10.

“There was no intention of threatening a lawsuit, it was simply an effort to place the item on the agenda for discussion and I apologize sincerely for making that mistake,” said Dan Northern of Forestville, announcing himself as the letter’s author at the open-session before the board met privately with legal counsel Jan. 20 regarding anticipated litigation.

Northern said everyone who signed the letter agreed they wanted to withdraw, that he had emailed the board asking to pull the letter, and if there was anything more he could do to let him know. “If you want to blame somebody, you can absolutely blame me for that,” he said.

The letter, dated Jan. 8, said replacing the district’s at-large trustee election method with a by-trustee-area method and possibly bumping the five seats on the board up to seven was needed to ward off future legal action and improve representation.

The signatories requested the WSCUHSD board create trustee areas in the district, replace the current election method with the by-trustee-area method and consider increasing to seven seats “if necessary or appropriate,” all according to the CVRA and the California Education Code. Fourth, the letter asks for the board to obtain an election-related waiver from the State Board of Education.

The letter concludes by requesting the issue make it onto the next regular or special board meeting agenda “and that the first phase of by trustee Area elections occur in the 2022 general election.” Six of the signatories were listed in the letter as Forestville residents. Debbie Ramirez, Sebastopol resident and chairperson of the Measure A campaign for a district parcel tax, also signed the letter.

The text of Measure A states the proposed levy is to provide funding to save programs, retain teachers and staff and maintain low class sizes, according to local ballot information from the Registrar of Voters.

The letter rattled public comment at the Jan. 20 board meeting, when a couple attendees characterized the endorsers as the same group promoting the Measure A campaign. Ramirez said this was a misconception in an interview Sat., Jan. 23 with Sonoma West Times & News.

“Those aren’t my committee members,” she said. “Most of those names are people who are passionate about our schools. I mean, that group of people really was looking to protect the district from litigation because they had seen that this had happened.”

Carmen Sinigiani co-chairs the West Sonoma County Schools Community Action Coalition with Adam Parks, but she said she spoke on her own behalf and not as a representative of any organization during public comment Jan. 20.

“I’m at a loss. I don’t even know what to do here. We’re at a financial crisis, we’re at a health crisis, we’re all trying to deal with what’s best for this district, and then these things keep happening. I just want to raise it to everybody’s attention that it’s a huge loss for our district, this expense,” she said.

The letter bewildered her, she said, as she viewed the signatories as the same group backing the district parcel tax. “And so, I’m confused about what the goal here is.”

Parks said the letter practically torpedoes the Measure A campaign because opponents against parcel taxes and other levies could claim the group promoting Measure A to “bridge this gap” is also trying to sue the district.

“My wife calls them toothpaste words, you can’t put them back in the tube,” he said. “So if we can please assume that the parcel tax is dead and move on, I am begging this board to start the process of consolidation now.”

Signatories Eleanor Gorman, Jessalee Mills, Northern and Ramirez each said the group did not intend to file suit. Gorman said several parents of current and former El Molino students found by their own research that various districts in the state had been facing lawsuits related to representation. “It might be relevant to us and we feel like it’s an actually perfectly relevant issue for El Molino parents,” she said, and that the group had no idea the letter could cost the district.

According to Ramirez, the district parcel tax garners wide community support “because west county really values education,” so support for Measure A among the signatories does not mean the two are connected in any way. “They’re two completely separate issues,” she said.

“I mean, maybe there were people who felt that this somehow would shake their support, but in my opinion, it seems like it might just be due to a lack of information,” Ramirez said.

She said she did not see the CVRA letter as divisive nor did she feel the parcel tax campaign would need to respond to the CVRA issue, “but I think that the community needs to maybe wait and see what the district says next and does next.”

Now what?

The superintendent laid out the potential sequence of events facing the district if they pursue a study during her Jan. 22 interview. A demographic study would probably start in the fall because it requires the 2020 census data that won’t be finalized until later this year, Beal said. She said the district would need to hire a demographer to use the census data to examine ways the WSCUHSD attendance area could be split up into election boundaries.

Next, the demographer would report their boundary-mapping suggestions to the board to take action on that would apply to the next election, in 2022 when three WSCUHSD board seats would open, she said.

“This is a pretty common thing right now happening throughout the state of California. There are several large cases happening in Southern California,” Beal said. “I think there’s pretty big lawsuits happening, like, I think we’re talking in the millions of dollars. So, we certainly don’t want to put ourselves in that situation.”

Sonoma Valley Unified School District and Santa Rosa Schools District have already made the shift, she said. “The thing that happened in our case was that the threat of the lawsuit kind of (sped up) the timeline and made it a more urgent topic that the board has to consider now.”

The text of the letter said the senders believed the current election method doesn’t hold up to the CVRA’s intent “even though the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) Board of Trustees may believe that its at-large elections have not been racially polarizing and that its makeup fairly represents the nearly 400 square miles of the district.”

The superintendent said this was the first time a conversation about racial representation regarding the board of trustees has been formally raised to her or the board. On Jan. 25, Beal sent Sonoma West Times & News 2020-21 student ethnic demographic data.

According to the data, El Molino’s student population is:

● 27.64% “Hispanic or Latino”

● 60.18% “White (Non-Hispanic)”

● 5.27% “Multi-Ethnic (Non-Hispanic)”

● 2.91% “American Indian – Alaskan Native”

● 1.82% “Black (Non-Hispanic)”

● 1.45% “Asian (Non-Hispanic)”

● Less than 1% “Pacific Islander (Non-Hispanic),” “FIlipino (Non-Hispanic)”, and “unknown,” respectively

The data listed Analy High School’s student population as:

● 24.05% “Hispanic or Latino”

● 65.61% “White (Non-Hispanic).”

● 3.8% “Multi-Ethnic (Non-Hispanic)”

● 1.5% “Black (Non-Hispanic)”

● 3.63% Asian (Non-Hispanic)

● Less than 1% “American Indian – Alaskan Native” or “Filipino (Non-Hispanic).” The data did not list Pacific Islander students as a demographic group at Analy.

The data shows Laguna High School’s student population as:

● 31.82% “Hispanic or Latino”

● 57.95% “White (Non-Hispanic).”

● 5.68% “Multi-Ethnic (Non-Hispanic)”

● 2.27% “Black (Non-Hispanic)”

● 1.14% “American Indian – Alaskan Native”

● 1.14% “Asian (Non-Hispanic)”

● The data did not list Pacific Islander students or Filipinx students as demographic groups at Laguna.

The superintendent said she thought the group may be motivated by feeling unheard in consolidation talks “and they’re questioning whether a board with five members who live in the Analy or Sebastopol attendance area are representing their voices.”

Nonetheless, Beal said she doesn’t think the signatories intended to put the district in a position to possibly fend off legal action “on a topic that’s really hot in California right now.”

The district must develop a fiscal recovery plan now that the Sonoma County Office of Education confirmed its status as qualified from the district’s first interim budget, Beal said at the Jan. 20 meeting. Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston said previously this plan would be due March 10 with the second interim report, according to Sonoma West Times & News reporting in December.

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