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Group Says It Will Sue Over San Diego Unified Board Elections

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in this photo, Sept. 15, 2017.

An advocacy group called Community Voices For Education says it’s suing the city over how trustees are elected to the San Diego Unified School Board.

It alleges the current rules, which are set by the city charter, are in violation of the California Voting Rights Act because they impede the ability of minority communities to elect minority representatives. Rather than being voted in by the communities they’ll directly represent, the trustees are elected by voters citywide.

The result, says Community Voices in a letter it sent to the city last month, there have been just three Latino trustees and one Asian-American trustee in a district whose student body is 46 percent Latino, 23 percent white, 8 percent Asian and 8 percent black. The current board includes four white men and one black woman.

“As a result of the abridgment voter rights, over 75 (percent) of the family populations currently in the SDUSD have been deprived of voter representation. That’s over 100,000 students and their families being disenfranchised,” the letter says.

RELATED: District, Union-Backed Proposal On School Board Elections Inching Toward The Ballot

Current board members have pointed out candidates must pass a local primary to get to the citywide runoff. They also worry a move to only local elections would disenfranchise parents whose children attend schools in other neighborhoods — about 40 percent of district families — and inadvertently disenfranchise voters south of Interstate 8 even further. The communities would have a say in just two board races, as opposed to all five.

Noting this complexity, the school board voted in May to further explore the idea but resisted calls from 60 percent of individuals who said they favored the change in a district survey.

How We Got Here

March 2017: City Council Republicans float ballot proposal on school board elections.

May 2017: Grand jury report supports election reforms.

October 2017: City rules committee backs away from city-led proposal, calls for citizen proposals on school board elections.

January 2018: Rules committee hears four citizen proposals but denies them all, instead asking the district to get community feedback on elections.

March-May 2018: District committee collects feedback, recommends a ballot proposal for three four-year terms.

May 2018: School board votes to accept its committee's feedback.

June 2018: City rules committee hears eight proposals on school board elections, favors district's recommendation.

July 2018: Full City Council approves the district's ballot proposal recommendation, Community Voices For Education threatens litigation.

Litigation could force the board’s hand. Advocates across the state have successfully used the 2001 law to push dozens of governmental bodies to make the switch to smaller, sub-district elections. San Diego’s city council members are now elected this way, and the Poway Unified, Cajon Valley Union and San Dieguito Union school districts all scrapped at-large board elections this year.

Community Voices’ legal threat comes after a San Diego County Grand Jury report recommended the change in 2017, after hundreds of community members agreed in a district-led survey and town hall meetings, and after multiple community groups asked the City Council to put the matter before voters in November.

Last week, the council voted instead to place a district-backed measure on trustee term limits on the ballot — essentially leaving concerns around at-large elections on the table.

“I just want to give a quick reminder to everyone of how we got ourselves here,” said Councilman Mark Kersey, who, along with three other Republicans on the council, wanted to eliminate at-large elections.

“The grand jury definitively recommended term limits and, importantly, sub-district-only elections for San Diego Unified, which is, of course, how all of us are elected up here,” he said. “Instead of accepting those recommendations from the grand jury, the school board responded by creating a long, drawn-out public input process. At the end of that process, they decided that that same process they created was flawed and that the findings from that process had to be ignored. So they made up their own remedy to give the veneer of reform.”

Councilman Scott Sherman echoed Kersey’s sentiment in fewer words: “This thing is a total joke.”

Clare Crawford, who helped lead the district’s public input process, has insisted the district isn’t playing games and is trying to be a good steward of democracy.

“Someone needs to do more of a real voting analysis around who would be empowered,” she told KPBS in May.

Community Voices hasn’t yet filed its lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office didn’t comment, other than to say the city would review any claims made against it.

In addition to term limits, voters will be asked in November to decide between two San Diego Unified incumbents, Kevin Beiser and Michael McQuary, and two candidates who bypassed the local primaries as write-in candidates, Tom Keliinoi and Marcia Nordstrom.

Audio

A parent group says it’s suing the city over how trustees are elected to the San Diego Unified school board. The parents say current rules are a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. KPBS Education reporter Megan Burks explains.

Transcript

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