Schools could change election system
The Sonoma Valley Unified School District is having a demographic study done that could change the way school board members are elected.
Currently, school board members are elected from an elementary school area in which they live, but every voter in the district can vote for each candidate.
But, said Elizabeth Mori, an attorney with the firm Fagan, Friedman & Fulfrost in Oakland, the system is not a true “by trustee area” and according to interpretations of the California Voting Rights Act, that could be illegal.
“Sonoma has a hybrid system, and it’s the only district in Sonoma County to use a trustee area but have an at-large election,” she said. “The California Voting Rights Act prohibits the use of at-large elections if it can be shown such an election ‘impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.’”
Mori said a number of lawsuits have been filed around the state, but so far not a one has gone to trial – all have been settled out of court because of the expense of a trial.
The California Voting Rights Act grants a prevailing plaintiff the right to recover reasonable attorney’s fees and expert witness fees. Mori told the school board there are a number of private law firms, most notably a firm calling itself the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, that are sending letters to numerous public entities claiming violation of the voting rights act and demanding that the public entity change to a “by-trustee area” election system.
Mori told the board that, according to the act, when there is a claim that a governing body is in violation of the voting rights act, proof of intent on the part of voters or elected officials to discriminate against a protected class is not required.
She suggested the district take a “pro-active approach,” do the demographic study and change to a “by-trustee” area election system which would allow for only the voters in a given trustee area to vote on that candidate.
And she said, while there is no timeline, the board should act as soon as possible so that the next board election in 2012 is by the trustee area.
“You may need to redraw the present site boundaries,” she added.
Boardmember Helen Marsh said the district hasn’t had a contested election since 2004. “But it’s unlikely that the Prestwood attendance area and the Dunbar attendance area share much of anything,” she added.
School Superintendent Louann Carlomagno said the district received a letter from the county superintendent of schools in August advising the district of potential risk of continuing its at-large voting.
“When we hold an election, we might be diluting the minority vote,” Carlomagno said. “But we won’t know until we do a demographic study.”
She said there might be two or three different scenarios to see how to redraw the precincts.
In closing, Mori told the board, “Emphasize that a transition to a by-trustee area election process does not change the fact that this is still one governing area with common goals and challenges.”