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Lawsuit Challenging SD Unified Elections Seeks To Invalidate This Year’s Board Races

The outside of the Board of Education building for the San Diego Unified School District is shown in this photo, March 24, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
The outside of the Board of Education building for the San Diego Unified School District is shown in this photo, March 24, 2016.

Various groups have pushed for changes to San Diego Unified School Board elections over the years. Now, one is looking to force reform through the courts.

Parents for Quality Education has filed a lawsuit alleging the district’s election process violates the California Voting Rights Act. The 2001 law prohibits citywide elections if they are shown to dilute the vote of minority communities.

Parents For Quality Education Lawsuit
Complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief; petition for writ of mandate.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Currently, trustees are elected in a citywide runoff after competing in a local, sub-district primary. The lawsuit seeks to restrict runoff voting to sub-districts, too. It also asks the court to block the San Diego County Registrar of Voters from certifying the outcome of two school board races next month.


“It is time for the community to vote for candidates that truly represent the interest of the community,” said Margaret Sanborn, one of the plaintiffs.

Many have argued the citywide runoff disenfranchises voters in communities of color because it scares off potential candidates — citywide campaigns can be expensive and tend to favor incumbents — and because the sub-district vote often has little bearing on the citywide outcome.

In 2016, for example, LaShae Collins lost to Sharon Whitehurst-Payne in the runoff after winning the primary in the district’s southeastern section. And this year, two write-in candidates advanced to the runoff after announcing their candidacy two weeks before the vote.

Tom Keliinoi received 2,763 votes in the primary, compared to competitor Kevin Beiser’s 36,038. And Marcia Nordstrom received 2,518, compared to incumbent Michael McQuary’s 29,447. All four will appear on the ballot in November.

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.

RELATED: Group Is Challenging San Diego Unified’s Elections Instead Of Its Incumbents


The lawsuit comes after a Grand Jury report recommended local-only elections for school board; after some City Council members and various community members, including those now associated with Parents for Quality Education, pushed for a ballot proposal on local-only elections; and after a San Diego Unified community survey suggested a majority favored the change.

But sitting board members and some on the committee that administered the survey said more research is needed before the district can move to local-only elections. They worry the change might actually disenfranchise voters further. It would mean residents in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods south of Interstate-8 would have a say in just two races, not five. And a large proportion of parents who send their children to schools outside of their sub-district would not have a say in who represents their school.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in San Diego Superior Court and names the district, the candidates running for school board, the registrar of voters, and the city, which sets the district’s election rules, as defendants. The plaintiffs are Parents for Quality Education; Sanborn, a Pacific American Community Cultural Center board member and a former charter school director; and Ricardo Castillo, a teacher at Cherokee Point Elementary School and 26-year resident of City Heights.

Lawsuit Challenging SD Unified Elections Seeks To Invalidate This Year’s Board Races
A lawsuit says San Diego Unified School Board elections disenfranchise minority voters. It seeks changes to how the elections are run and asks the court to invalidate next month’s school board election.