Dozens of school boards in the Central Valley are changing their election systems in response to a state law aimed at increasing minority representation, but much of the rest of the state hasn't budged.
Some county boards of education have aggressively pushed for change, spurred on by expensive lawsuits targeting school districts. Other counties haven't made the issue a top priority, have faced resistance from local school boards or have given advice to school districts that some say could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits.
Under the California Voting Rights Act, local governments can't hold at-large elections – in which the entire community votes for all elected positions – if that system weakens the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice. Lawyers can prove a violation under the 2002 law by showing that voting is polarized along racial lines. School boards can avoid liability by changing to trustee-area elections, in which each trustee is elected by a different region of the school district.
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The civil rights lawyers who crafted the law started off suing governments in the Central Valley, sparking a domino effect in the region. Since 2009, 70 school boards have applied with the state Board of Education to switch to trustee-area elections, most of them just this year and most of them in counties like Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare. School boards can either put the change to a vote or ask for a waiver from the state Board of Education.
All but one school district in Madera County decided to switch out of an "abundance of caution," said Geri Kendall Cox, chief business and administrative services officer of the Madera County Office of Education.
"It seemed like the best course of action for the districts to protect their assets and the assets of the County Office of Education," she said.
Lawyers representing Latino residents had sued the Madera Unified School District in 2008 to force it to switch to trustee-area elections. Even though the district acquiesced soon after the suit was filed, the lawyers demanded $1.7 million in attorneys fees, sending fear throughout school administration circles statewide and helping to spur the ripple effect.
Robert Rubin, a key attorney behind the legal offensive, often points to the Madera case as a success, noting that the number of Latino school board members has increased from one to four out of seven.
After a long battle, though, an appellate court agreed last month that the attorneys fees should be lowered to $162,500.
With that ruling, school boards now might be less worried about the threat of huge legal fees, said Ron Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education. In contrast to the Central Valley, no districts in Orange County have initiated a switch to trustee-area elections.
Last year, Wenkart advised districts to look into the past electoral success of minority school board candidates. If minority candidates won most of the time, according to his letter, the district will likely prevail in a voting rights lawsuit.
Wenkart, in an interview, also said that if a school board hasn't had any minority candidates, then it probably wouldn't be vulnerable under the law.
"Then there’s no history of racially polarized voting," he said.
Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento-based redistricting consultant, disagreed strongly.
"You can’t just rest on, 'Well, they don’t try,' " Mitchell said. "Making a statement like that in a position of authority is really irresponsible."
Mitchell said Wenkart's letter was overly simplistic and could leave local school districts vulnerable to lawsuits.
In some counties, the issue simply isn't considered urgent. Even though the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors got sued last year, the County Committee on School District Organization is not immediately concerned about lawsuits, said committee Secretary Nancy Magee.
“They see the election system as a separate discussion they’re not having right now,” she said. “The election conversation hasn’t gotten that deep.”
Other counties have tried to goad districts into action without success.
The Santa Clara County Board of Education passed a resolution in 2009 encouraging school districts to review their election systems “to ensure the process fully supports the letter as well as the spirit of the CA Voting Rights Act.”
Since then, though, only one district in the county has moved to trustee-area elections. Board President Joseph Di Salvo said he has been frustrated at the lack of response. He attributes the inaction to “self-preservation and self-interest” among local school board trustees who don’t want to jeopardize their re-elections.
“We haven’t been willing to be bold enough about these issues,” Di Salvo said. “The status quo is not OK.”
The Fresno County Office of Education, on the other hand, took aggressive action and got results. After watching lawsuits hit neighboring jurisdictions, County Superintendent Larry Powell told local districts to get into compliance and ordered a demographic study to get them started. Resistance, he said, would be like “spitting in the wind.”
“It doesn’t make sense for us not to comply with the law,” Powell said. “There was no good reason not to do it, so we took away any reasons they had. ... We tried to say, 'You can’t afford not to.' "
The result: Eleven school districts in Fresno County have moved to make the switch so far.
Still, not all school boards need to change. Rubin, who helped draft the law and has directed the legal onslaught to enforce it, said parts of the state might not be in violation because voting isn't racially polarized there. Rubin also admits his own limitations.
"We’re not going to be able to sue every school district in the state," he said. "So there’s going to be some measure of good will and following of the rule of law in order for this to be effectively implemented."
School boards that applied to switch election systems, by county, since 2005
Source: California Department of Education
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Agustin Armendariz of the California Watch staff contributed to this report.