Although Hispanics make up 53 percent of its student population, the Vista Unified School District in San Diego County hasn't had a Hispanic school board member in decades. That's a fact current board President Steve Lilly concedes needs to change.
"It would be really hard to make a case that our board is or has been representative of the student and family population in the district," Lilly told the North County Times.
Vista Unified officials this week published two revised maps that redraw voting precincts in ways they say will lead to better representation for minorities. The district is holding hearings Saturday and in late August to get public input on the new maps. The district serves 23,000 students in 34 schools. Officials hope to choose one final map to present for board approval in October.
Although no lawsuit has been filed, Vista Unified's effort is intended to prevent one from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The civil rights advocates are based in San Francisco and have aggressively sought city and district compliance with the California Voting Rights Act, a 2002 law that makes it illegal to disenfranchise minority groups from the electoral process.
The act allows lawsuits to be filed against districts that elect governing boards through at-large elections if those elections prevented minority voters from influencing the outcome. The law stems from claims that at-large elections allowed non-minority voting blocs to dominate the process.
The lawyers group has filed at least five lawsuits challenging local election processes it says effectively block Latinos from being elected.
The group's efforts have been aided by Supreme Court decisions upholding the voters' rights law. Boosted by the successful challenge of the Madera Unified School District's board election in 2008 and threats of additional lawsuits, school districts statewide have been spurred to examine ways to reform their election processes.
Robert Rubin, legal director for the lawyers committee, told Capitol Weekly in May that his group wants to prevent minority voters from being shut out by the kind of tactics used in the South during the Civil Rights Era. He said:
School boards need to reflect the demographic composition of the communities they serve. If they don't, then how those board members are elected should change. If it doesn't, you will be sued and it'll be expensive.
The San Diego County Office of Education has recommended that districts consider changing their voting processes to avoid problems with the law. Several other North County school districts are considering similar changes, including Oceanside Unified and Escondido Union.
Last year, Vista Unified's board agreed to reform its voting process ahead of the 2012 election. The district hired National Demographics Corp. to help divide its voting areas so that each of the existing trustees is in a separate zone, Donna Caperton, assistant superintendent in charge of business services, told the North County Times. Once finalized, Vista Unified would become the first San Diego County district to reform its school board elections.