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.