Click here for original article from the San Diego Union Tribune

Ballot measure would replace at-large school board elections, which some say are racially discriminatory, with by-district elections

By Kristen Taketa

Voters will decide in November whether to change how San Diego Unified School Board members are elected, going from an at-large general election of board members to one that would have voters pick board members by sub-district.

On Tuesday City Council unanimously approved a ballot measure that, if approved, would establish such by-district elections for San Diego Unified in both the primary and general elections.

Currently only primary school board elections are by-district — which means people only vote for candidates within their own sub-district. The top two vote-getters from each district go on to the general school elections, which are at-large. That means voters in all of San Diego Unified decide the winner of each sub-district, regardless of which sub-district they live in.

The school district’s election process is dictated by the city charter, not by the school board or the school district. The ballot measure seeks to change the city charter.

Several City Council members said they support having district-only elections for San Diego Unified. Council member Barbara Bry said the ballot measure is a “big step forward” in giving sub-districts more say in who represents them, and she hopes it will encourage more grassroots candidates to run for school board.

City Council members are elected by district only.

The measure came about thanks to Parents for Quality Education, a San Diego-based public interest group that sued the city in September 2018 to get rid of at-large school board elections.

The organization argued that at-large elections are discriminatory in that they prevent people of color from getting elected to the school board, particularly Latino and Asian Pacific Islander candidates. The group’s advocates say at-large elections give more voting power to an overall White-majority electorate and dilute the power of people of color in sub-districts where they make up a majority.

Parents for Quality Education also believes that San Diego Unified’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which says at-large elections are illegal if they hinder the ability of members of a protected class, including certain racial groups, from electing candidates of their choice.

Tom Keliinoi, president of Parents for Quality Education and a former school board candidate, said every voter — not just people of color — is disenfranchised when other people outside that voter’s sub-district can pick the representative of that sub-district.

“That really disenfranchises everyone in … every district. It’s unfair and it’s unconstitutional,” Keliinoi said.

Throughout the state, Whites have a disproportionately higher presence among likely voters. Latinos make up 35 percent of California adults but only 19 percent of the state’s likely voters, while Whites make up 42 percent of California adults and 58 percent of likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

School boards frequently do not reflect the racial demographics of the students they serve and tend to be dominated by Whites.

San Diego Unified’s school board currently has three White board members, one African-American board member and one Latino board member. Meanwhile 24 percent of San Diego Unified’s 102,000 students are White, 44 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Asian. Other district students are Filipino, American Indian or multiracial.

Board member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who is African-American, represents southeastern San Diego, and board member Richard Barrera, who is Latino, represents south-central San Diego.

At-large election campaigns also are bigger and more expensive than by-district election campaigns and tend to favor incumbents and candidates with more financial resources.

In the past, some school board candidates who were preferred by voters of their sub-district in the primary election subsequently lost in the general election thanks to voters of San Diego Unified overall. Because of this, the San Diego County Grand Jury said in 2017 that San Diego Unified School Board elections should be held by district only, because that would better ensure that the interests of each specific sub-district would be represented.

San Diego School Board President John Lee Evans, who is not running for re-election this year, said he would not be opposed to having district-only elections.

But Evans said one advantage to having at-large elections is that board members are held accountable to the entire city, rather than just to their own sub-district.

He added that he doesn’t believe by-district elections would eliminate the influence of special interests, since groups like unions or charter school associations could contribute campaign funds just as easily to candidates in by-district elections.

Many school districts and other agencies across the state have been switching to by-district elections, some after receiving threats of lawsuits alleging violations of the California Voting Rights Act.

But school boards have been slow to diversify even after adopting by-district elections. Some say that’s partly because dividing elections into sub-districts can fracture communities of color or isolate majority communities of color to a few sub-districts, rather than the district at-large.

A majority vote is required to pass the San Diego ballot measure in November.

Full article here –