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Are Santa Rosa school elections fair?

By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County’s largest school district is examining how it elects its school board members as other districts across California move to broaden their representation — and avoid litigation.

Santa Rosa City Schools plans to examine whether the current way trustees are elected disenfranchises minority voters and fails to comply with the California Voting Rights Act.

The district elects its trustees on an at-large basis, meaning they are chosen from across the district and do not represent a particular area.

Currently, all seven members of Santa Rosa’s board live on the east side of Highway 101, and three of the seven live in the Fountaingrove hilltop developments.

Five of the seven trustees are white, one is Latino and one is black.

The racial makeup of students in the Santa Rosa district was 47.7 percent white, 37.2 percent Latino, 5.4 percent Asian and 3.2 percent black in the 2009-10 school year, the most recent numbers available.

Of Santa Rosa’s approximately 167,815 residents, 47,970, or 28.6 percent, are Latino.

“We understand that because of the California Voting Rights Act, we need to take a look at our district in reference to areas that we serve and (our) population,” said Frank Pugh, the board’s longest-serving member and current president.

“I would certainly like to have this thing resolved by early spring,” he said.

While the district is not currently under a legal threat, civil rights attorneys statewide have been using the 2002 law to push districts into compliance with regulations that make it illegal to disenfranchise voting groups.

The law opens the door to lawsuits over whether so-called “at large” elections diminish the impact minority voters have on the outcomes.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights has sued districts it claims are cutting minority voices out of the process. It has four active lawsuits in California related to election inequities and “another half a dozen that have been resolved,” said Robert Rubin, director of organization’s California Voting Rights Institute.

What fair representation looks like may not be obvious, he said.

“The Latino community may elect a black man or an Asian woman. Our argument is at least they have an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice,” he said.

Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group based in Sacramento, echoed the argument.

“Essentially, it was to ensure that people of color, minorities, especially Latino and African Americans and other underrepresented folks in school districts, were being represented on their local school boards, and that is usually not so when school boards are at-large,” she said.

However, some critics say that area elections promote a provincial attitude in governance.

“The concern you have is more parochialism, ‘I worry about my part of town’ instead of the wider city,” said Chris Skinnell, attorney with Nelson, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni of San Rafael.

Moving to area elections may be the only way to avoid litigation, experts on opposite sides in recent suits agreed.

“Certainly, it’s the safe approach, and it’s the only way to avoid getting sued,” Skinnell said.

“We are representing two or three dozen that are moving over” to area elections, Skinnell said. “It’s partly people being more proactive and partly people being threatened.”

Santa Rosa has not fielded a complaint over its election practices and is simply being prudent, Pugh said.

“We had no complaint, no letters, no nothing,” he said. “I think maybe it’s something you look at so if people do have questions down the road, you have answers.”

Board members also noted that school board elections in recent years have not been competitive.

“Two out of the last four elections, everybody that got on the ballot” won, said Bill Carle, a trustee since 1998. “It’s hard to say there is much of a barrier to getting on the school district board.”

Trustee Donna Jeye said the current conversation about changing the structure may generate more interest in running.

Carle supports examining where the district stands — in particular its position as a city-chartered district and whether that affects how elections are governed.

“We need to be out in front of it and understand it, and if there is an issue there, we need to resolve it,” he said.

Santa Rosa trustees expressed support for the establishment of a committee to look at the way the district operates.

“In Santa Rosa, we have changing demographics,” board member Ron Kristof said. “I’m very concerned about equity, there is not a question about that.”

Trustee Larry Haenel said the current lineup isn’t balanced to reflect the district as a whole.

“Clearly, it’s not,” he said.

But the board does not show bias toward or against particular campuses or students, he said. “I don’t really see any favoritism that exists because of the lack of district elections,” he said.

Laura Gonzalez, the board’s sole Latino member, praised the board’s current configuration.

“I think our board is pretty open,” she said. “I think that the board represents kids, staff and administration as best as any board could. I don’t know that it would be any better just because we had more diversity on there.”

Still, area elections are probably in Santa Rosa City Schools’ future, she said.

“I agree with it in principle because I think that Santa Rosa is an especially good example. So many of our elected officials come from one quadrant of the city,” she said, noting that she, too, lives on the east side.

“I think it would be better to have more voices from the Latino community, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be better,” she said. “Belonging to an ethnicity does not mean you are going to be more responsive to that community or vote in any different way on issues.”

Trustee Tad Wakefield, who is black, said he has not heard “a ton of citizen fury over it.”

Wakefield expressed concern that the lack of competition for seats in recent years is telling.

“I don’t think (district elections) would hurt, but at the same time, it’s an important position and you want people who are thoughtful and who are not going to just get in and not be the best and most qualified person who is there,” he said.

“I don’t think what we have currently is a negative to the kids,” he said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.





5 Responses to “Are Santa Rosa school elections fair?”

  1. Ken says:

    Where do you people come from? You act like all problems we are facing are new under the sun.

    “One neighborhood bled into the next. We were all one.”

    Where did you live, in some parallel universe? Ever been back East? I was born and raised in PA, and let me tell you, we weren’t all one. Those people lived over there, with their own people. And I’m talking white ethnics. Italians and Irish stayed the hell away from each other.

    Ever been to the South? I have, and I didn’t see what you’re referring to.

    “Now we have foreigners bringing in another country’s flag. We have foreigners speaking other languages primarily.”

    You mean like Italians in Boston? Irish in Boston or Chicago? Jeez, we honor their Catholic patron saint and have parades, but no one makes a stink. Hmmmmm…..

    Oh, no, of course you meant Mexicans. *wink wink*

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  2. RAW says:

    Looks they are pandering to racists trying to not to get sued. If you are white or or color and can not be fairly represented by the opposite, you have a big problem. You are a racist. All because you may not agree with a board decision, does not mean you are not represented. It only means your representative has a different take on things. Usually or hopefully, because the board member has studied the idea more carefully. As with almost all boards of director’s meetings, either show up or shut up. If you are not there, you are not informed.

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  3. Jim says:

    “Essentially, it was to ensure that people of color, minorities, especially Latino and African Americans and other underrepresented folks in school districts, were being represented on their local school boards, and that is usually not so when school boards are at-large,” she said.

    Aren’t we all AMERICANS? Why do we let politicians groups us, or hyphenate us? There is no African American community, Latino community, etc. There is America. We have kids who should grow up with a sense of community with everyone, not with the “Latino” community. The VAST majority of people don’t see race or color. It is the media and politicians who label people, who group people. This separation has destroyed the country.

    It used to be when someone in a neighborhood got sick, the neighbors would come together and help out. It used to be that kids respected the parents of their friends just like they respected their own. One neighborhood bled into the next. We were all one. Now we have foreigners bringing in another country’s flag. We have foreigners speaking other languages primarily. We have politicians grouping people. Political “leaders” (who are paid by the government lobbyists…like Jesse Jackson) convince people that an “African-American” couldn’t vote for a Republican unless they were an “Uncle Tom” or a sell-out. Why? Because the Democrats want to create a massive voting block. The same goes for “Latinos”. They don’t care about the group, just the votes.

    Sheeple can be manipulated. A person, one individual, is much harder to control. So they group you. It is so clear, but Sheeple are blind.

    This is a article about a school board. A school board! It starts small, locally. The grouping exists all the way up to the White House. Pay attention and it’ll become clear as day. Unfortunately, Sheeple are easily brainwashed and controlled.

    I’m convinced that everyone seeking election to any board, position or office only cares about the next election, not the people they supposedly represent. Show me ONE politician who doesn’t group people by race, economic status, etc. JUST ONE!

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  4. Reality Check says:

    Are we so divided as a city and people that we don’t want the best to represent us all, whatever age, race, gender, sexual preference, or even the side of town they reside?

    The theory seems to be that our common interests don’t override our race, tribe, gender, age, etc. Does race, etc., trump all? Scary.

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  5. Just a Thought says:

    Members of the school board need to represent all of the residents of Santa Rosa within the school district.

    The school board should not be balkanize so members only represent their little special district within the larger school district.

    This is bad for the community at large and bad for getting things done on the school board.

    There are too many special interests now. Why compound the problem?

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