Could CVRA create further money woes for school districts?
California school districts that think budget cuts are their biggest issue could be in for a rude awakening as more about the California Voting Rights Act becomes clear. Currently, there is only one sure way to safeguard a district from lawsuits stemming from supposed CVRA violations. The Eastern Sierra Unified School District has been examining this safe harbor for the past few months.
Presently, ESUSD elects its Board members via “at-large” elections (as does Mammoth Unified School District, which also discussed CVRA in September, according to the minutes). This means that any community member in the Eastern Sierra Unified School District is allowed to vote for any and all seats on the Board.
In May, Mono County Superintendent of Schools, Stacey Adler made a presentation to the Board regarding the California Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 2002. The law purports to make it easier for racial and ethnic groups to challenge at-large elections than under the Federal Voting Rights Act. According to Adler’s PowerPoint in May, “moving from the current ‘at-large’ election system to a ‘by-trustee’ system is the ONLY sure protection from a CVRA suit.” Other publications such as California Schools Magazine report the same.
Several CVRA suits have been filed against elected bodies in the past few years, including suits against Madera Unified School District and Hanford Joint Union School District. According to the Santa Clara Weekly, in the case of Madera, the District lost and had to pay $1.2 million in the plaintiff’s lawyer fees. While Hanford chose to settle, it was required to pay the plaintiff’s lawyer fees as well to the tune of $110,000.
In a “by-trustee” system, the voters residing in the area that the candidate will represent conduct elections. For example, residents of June Lake would only be allowed to vote for the school board member that represents June Lake. This would mean voters would only get to vote on school board members every four years rather than every two.
Since 2003, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), whose members were drafters of the CVRA according to the Santa Clara Weekly, started bringing lawsuits against all kinds of elected bodies. The main goal, it seems, is to put Latinos in office, the article stated.
“Despite California’s diversity and status as a minority-majority state, the LCCR’s lawsuits and threats appear to focus almost exclusively on electing Latinos to public office,” it continued.
ESUSD Superintendent Don Clark, however, explained that there was an additional catalyst for looking at this potential change. “Every 10 years when the census is done we reevaluate our district numbers and board election system,” he explained. “Our legal counsel has reviewed our minority numbers and determined that we are not underrepresenting the Hispanic population [with the way the District currently holds elections].” Currently four out of five Board members are Caucasian.
Emails between community members have circulated throughout the district regarding the topic, and it seems that the public is split on the idea of the change. Some argue that the by-trustee approach would allow the elected board member to have a better understanding of his or her area’s needs and concerns, and therefore he or she would better represent the students in his or her area. Others argue that because anyone running for a Board position must live in their portion of the school district in order to run, the representation and understanding of their specific area is already present.
At last month’s ESUSD Board meeting held in Coleville, the topic drew in a large crowd.
“We probably had about 150 people there,” Clark said. The majority of the group requested that the Board change to a “by-trustee” election system. The Board, however, was not in favor of this change, according to Clark.
The confirmation from legal counsel that no population in the District was being underrepresented, plus the feeling of the Board that each member should represent the entire district, not just one portion, were some of the reasons the Board did not feel it was necessary to make a change, according to Clark.
There could, however, be one more reason that the Board may not want to shake up the electoral procedure: fiscal constraints. According to a 2009 article in California Schools Magazine, “School districts and county offices with budgets strained by tough fiscal times are understandably reluctant to devout resources to changing districts’ electoral systems.”
If the Board did decide to change the electoral system, the change would then have to go before the voters.
According to Lynda Roberts, County Clerk/Recorder, if the item were put on the ballot the cost would be pro-rated with how many other items were on that same ballot.
“If it were on a June ballot where there are more items, they would only pay a portion of the cost,” Roberts said. If, however, it were the only thing on the ballot (such as MUSD’s Measure S in November), the District would pay the entire cost.
ESUSD is still reeling from its budget issues in the 2009/10 fiscal year when it met with a more than $2 million shortfall. Like many other California school districts, today ESUSD is facing even more cuts from the state in the upcoming months. The Board is expected to discuss a potential $350,000 loss from the state at its Dec. 19 regular meeting.
A special board meeting is being held on Monday, Dec. 12 at 6 p.m. at the District Office in Bridgeport. According to Clark, the Board will again receive public testimony on the subject of changing the electoral system at this meeting.
Regardless of whether or not the Board is swayed to change the electoral system, the district lines for ESUSD will have to be redrawn because currently, the numbers represented in each segment of the district are out of whack.
For example, Lee Vining has about 250 constituents while the Walker/Coleville area has more than 1,000. The new configuration of the lines is presently undecided.
“We need more equal representation and will be working with a consultant in the coming months to accomplish this,” Clark said. He estimated that each segment of the district should represent approximately 800 people.