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School Board initiates election process change

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
December 27, 2019

At a special public session of the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District on December 19, 2019, the Board of Trustees approved by a vote of 5-0 Resolution 1920-10. This resolution initiates a process whereby future board elections starting in 2020 will be changed from at-large elections to by-district elections.

Numerous public agencies, cities, and school districts throughout the state, have been targeted by private law firms for alleged violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) for using at-large elections. The rationale used by the private lawyer firms in their threatened lawsuit is that at-large elections “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election...” Some chose to fight the allegations costing millions of dollars to their taxpayers. None have prevailed and won their fights. Despite changing to by-district elections for city council in 2020, Rohnert Park will still have to pay the lawyers threatening the litigation $30,000 in addition to all the costs involved in making the changes to the city council election process. 

The school district decided to be proactive and not wait to get sued by these firms. They have not received a “demand letter” yet; but, by voluntarily starting the process to change to by-district elections through this resolution, they’ve denied those private law firms the opportunity to make $30,000 just by sending such a letter. Given the fiscal constraints already impacting the school district, saving this money was important to the board. Yet the district will incur additional costs in 2020 by making this change. They’ll need to hire consultants and pay legal fees to make sure the election boundaries and processes meet all requirements of the CVRA and the Education Codes. 

The timing was important too. By doing it now for the 2020 election, adoption of “by-trustee area” elections will not affect the terms of any sitting board members. Trustees Wiltermood and Nonn will each serve out their current terms. The 2020 boundaries may impact whether Trustees Nonn or Wiltermood chooses to run for reelection next year. Based on this vote, the district will transmit the resolution to the County Committee for approval and seek a waiver from the State Board of Education. Without this waiver, the district would have to get approval to make the change from the public on the November 2020 ballot.  The district intends to hold multiple public meetings to get input on the drawing of the election boundaries and make by-district decisions quickly so potential candidates for the two open seats in 2020 can file and commence their election campaigns. More to follow as information and timelines become known and published.