The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has begun its transition away from at-large board elections to district-based elections, enlisting the National Demographics Corp. to help analyze the population and how to draw district maps.
At a special meeting Tuesday night, the school board met with the public and reviewed the California Voting Rights Act, how the transition will be made, the San Ramon Valley’s existing demographics and outlined a proposed timeline for when maps will be drawn.
“The beginning of it will be confusing,” acknowledged board president Rachel Hurd at the first of two mandatory meetings seeking public input.
The decision to make the change was the result of a petition submitted by a voting rights organization that requested the district make the change, citing the California Voting Rights Act, which finds that at-large elections impair the abilities of a “protected class” to influence the outcome of an election -- according to the petition, a protected class is defined as voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group.
The SRVUSD's plan is for a total of five trustee areas to be mapped out within the entire region, one for each trustee position, with an equal number of residents populating each -- approximately 28,667 people, according to the NDC. The board will be tasked with the challenge of dividing up an expansive district that includes San Ramon, Danville and the unincorporated communities of Alamo, Diablo and Blackhawk.
Using information collected from the 2010 U.S. census, the NDC has created a presentation detailing the makeup of the approximately 143,385 residents living within the SRVUSD’s boundaries.
According to the NDC, the majority of residents (89,489) are non-Hispanic white, but the district has a large population of Asian-Americans (37,887) and Latin Americans (10,717), as well as a smaller population of African Americans (3,074).
It is illegal for the board to draw districts based on racial gerrymandering, but the information is still valuable for recognizing the makeup of the community, officials said.
When trustee areas are drawn, the board will attempt to create ones that contain communities that contain similar interests.
So called “communities of interest” not only typically exist close together geographically, but tend to share similar levels of income, education, linguistic isolation and/or legislative concerns. They are also identified by similar school attendance areas, natural dividing lines (such as rivers or highways), or through similar interests.
It should be noted that the district plans to adjust the map after the completion of the 2020 census.
A second public hearing is set to be held either the first or second week of January, with drafts of the new district map being released later that same month. The board will review and adjust the drafted maps as necessary and expect to adopt a preferred version at their Feb. 19 meeting.
One potentially major pitfall of the transition highlighted by the board is essentially the loss of a voting opportunity for half of the district's voting population, according to Trustee Ken Mintz.
“The Voting Rights Act was to help people, but when you look at our board that means that individuals in our community will only be able to vote for school board trustees every four years now. They will lose a voting opportunity to make their opinions known about what's going on in a school district and that's wrong,” Mintz said at the meeting.
After the transition is made, residents will only vote for a candidate who is campaigning for their geographic area, essentially meaning residents will only vote for one trustee seat every four years, instead of all available trustee seats every two years.
SRVUSD officials could have challenged the petition in court, but chief business officer Greg Medici explained that the Voting Rights Act does not favor agencies defending at-large elections.
“It is a very powerful provision of the law. And ultimately ... it is always the intent of every government agency to comply with the law,” Medici said. “There have been government agencies that have chose to suggest that there are other ways of complying with the California voting Rights Act... and have paid a lot of money to do so.”
He added that no agency has ever successfully challenged the act.
The district will a list of documented demographics and existing areas based off of school attendance zones to its website. But officials want residents to keep in mind district designation is an ongoing process and existing maps do not necessarily reflect the final results.
SRVUSD’s next election is set to be held November 2020, with two trustee seats available for residents, the remaining three will be contested in 2022.