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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

A Quiet District Elections Push for SB Schools

Behind-the-scenes, the grassroots group that ended citywide city council voting in Santa Barbara has met with superintendents throughout the county in recent weeks, a key move to install district elections for school boards.

Their effort, which wields the California Voting Rights Act, is aimed at increasing and strengthening minority representation in the governance of school districts. Over the next few years, it is likely to transform dramatically the regional landscape of public education.

Cary Matsuoka, superintendent of Santa Barbara’s Unified School District, told Newsmakers that he sat down recently with District Elections Committee representatives and expects to present the matter to his board soon.

“We’ll get something on the agenda,” Matsuoka said. He added, however, that he does not believe a district plan could be implemented at least until the 2022 election.

The activists are proposing that Santa Barbara's board be reconstituted with seven members and include at least three districts where racial minority and low-income students represent a majority of school populations. They would like district elections to begin sooner, perhaps as early as this year.

“We’re focused in 2018 on all school districts in the southern region,” said Jacqueline Inda, the indefatigable local leader of the district election campaign.

Wading into the weeds. On Thursday, Inda and former school board member Lanny Ebenstein met at the County Education Office with a group of superintendents and administrators and urged that districts pass resolutions authorizing the transition by May 5, to avoid entanglement in possible legal challenges.

The district election committee is allied with a statewide network of voting rights groups.

Among those that have been involved in legal actions against local jurisdictions are the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Over the past several years, scores of cities and school districts throughout California have switched to district elections, in part to avoid voting rights litigation. The law, signed by former Governor Gray Davis is 2002, has been used widely in efforts to increase the clout of minority voters, presumed to be diluted in “at-large” elections.

In a 2014 case that reverberated with local governments across the state,, the city of Palmdale had to pay out $4.5 million and establish district elections after unsuccessfully resisting a voting rights lawsuit.

In 2015, a move by Santa Barbara’s District Elections Committee against the city of Santa Barbara resulted in a district system for all city council seats except the mayor, but only after delays cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees paid to the firm of virtuoso barrister Barry Cappello, who represented the committee at the time. (Former Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, whose legal style is less bellicose, is now their counsel).

In 2016, however, the Legislature passed a law capping legal fee payouts for such actions at $30,000, if a lawsuit does not have to be filed..

State of play. The District Elections Committee is working to transform the electoral systems of districts in a vast area, from Santa Maria into Ventura County.

In Lompoc, the board passed a measure last year to move ahead with district elections for school board members, officially known as “trustees."

After voting to proceed, boards typically hire a demographer to craft district maps, which then are subject to public comment and hearings.

Inda said that not only race, but also economic factors such as income, enrollment in subsidized school lunch programs, and health insurance status among student populations should be used in devising the maps.

The process is defined by a series of benchmark steps, beginning with a formal letter to district administrators; advocates said they submitted letters to every school district in the region in January. From that point, Inda said, districts have 90 days to formally agree, or risk receiving a legal notice, which triggers more work for lawyers. She added, however, that the group is willing to be flexible with school districts, because of tight budgets for education.

Although Santa Barbara’s current board is composed of five members elected at-large, the seven-member board of trustees favored by the district election group aims to create at least three "majority minority" seats meet the criteria of the voting rights act.

“SB Unified is so wide, encompassing schools from Gaviota to Montecito, that it would be difficult to provide proper representation at every level with five seats,” she said.

Tick, tick, tick. One crucial conflict could arise over the timing of implementation.

Inda said the group is hopeful to have systems in place for elections in 2020, or even this year.

Matsuoka told us, however, that the earliest district elections likely would be 2022, and that Santa Barbara Unified would take advantage of new data in the 2020 census.

He also expressed some reservations about a district system: “One of the concerns with districts is that trustees only care about” schools in their own areas, he said.

The disclosure of the low-profile discussions comes at a time when the Santa Barbara district already is roiled by the threat of a recall campaign against two board members who voted last month to demote San Marcos High School principal Ed Behrens. Further fueling the political excitement over public education, there are two seats on the November ballot, one open and one held by appointed trustee Ismael Ulloa, who voted against Behrens.

Inda emphasized that the district election push is a separate effort and her committee has nothing to do with the recall.

“The recall is not of our direct concern,” she said. “Proper policies are. SBUSD could benefit from having a seven-member board with leaders that lead policy changes that will impact generations of students to come."

Images: The Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Trustees (L-R: Ismael Ulloa; Laura Capps; Wendy Sims-Moten; Jackie Reid; Kate Parker; Superintendent Cary Matsuoka); Deep in the weeds: Jacqueline Inda; Matsuoka.

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