One by one, San Diego County school districts are changing how they elect board members, to avoid being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. Poway Unified, Cajon Valley Union and San Dieguito Union are next in line.
The change is similar to what has happened with several city councils across the state, where at-large elections are being replaced with more local district elections. The Voting Rights Act prohibits at-large elections if they block fair representation of minorities.
The San Diego County Board of Education is holding the final public hearings for the school districts’ plans before it votes on whether to implement them in time for this year’s elections.
“We realized that if we got out in front of it like many of my colleagues have, we could have more control over the process and not have to pay the fine,” said Cajon Valley Superintendent David Miyashiro.
Attorneys up and down the state have successfully sued under the 2002 law, costing school districts a pretty penny in legal fees. A 2016 law capped payouts at $30,000.
Cajon Valley’s plan breaks the East County district into five sub-districts covering a mix of suburban and rural areas that are home to a growing number of Syrian and East African refugees, as well as a longstanding Iraqi Chaldean community.
Myashiro said the plan should not raise concerns those communities weren’t already well represented.
“The board was already doing the right work representing the community,” he said. “Not to say it’s going to do more harm the good, it’s just that in most cases it’s not going to change much.”
The firm helping Cajon Valley — and dozens of other governing bodies in California — draw its voting districts, National Demographics Corporation, says nearly 200 jurisdictions in the state have changed to district elections, including 131 school districts. An analysis by the public affairs consulting group GrassrootsLab shows that out of 22 cities that made the change, seven grew more diverse in subsequent elections, according to the Los Angeles Times.
San Diego Unified is assembling a committee to explore whether it should change its at-large runoffs. It holds by-district primaries.
The city council, which governs those elections, recently rejected four ballot proposals put forward by citizens groups that would have nixed the at-large election and placed term limits on board members. The school board itself said it will consider bringing forward a ballot proposal in time for the November election.