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March 5, 2021
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WSCUHSD going to By-Trustee Districts

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
February 19, 2021

The West Sonoma County Union High School District began the process to change school board elections from “At-Large” to “By-Trustee” at their regular board meeting on February 10. Readers may remember that both the City of Rohnert Park and the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District made this change in 2020. 

The City of Rohnert Park was pressured to change their long-standing election process by threatened litigation which alleged the city’s “at large” process violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Although the city disputed those allegations, they recognized the risk of litigation and the potential costs involved in going to court, even if they won their case. In November 2019 they declared intent to change the election process to “by-district.” This meant their potential liability was capped at $30,000. But the change also cost the city an estimated additional $50,000 to make the change.

The Cotati Rohnert Park School District wasn’t pressured to make the change. However, they realized they too were at risk for significant litigation and cost if a similar “demand letter” was sent to the district. Therefore, they voluntarily declared their intent to change their election process to a by trustee election. Although this avoided litigation costs, they too did incur additional costs to make the change. They had to hire consultants and pay legal fees to make sure the election boundaries met all requirements of the CVRA and the Education Codes.

From my previous articles, here is some background. “Numerous public agencies, cities and school. districts throughout the state, have been targeted by private law firms for alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) for using at-large elections.” The rationale for these allegations 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 who chose to fight the allegations spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money to do so. Almost all lost. A few are still in the court system for final determinations. But even if they ultimately win, they can’t recoup the cost and they are still responsible for paying legal fees and cost of the plaintiffs who brought the suit. Even if they agree to make the change, once they get a demand letter, they still must pay the $30,000 to cover the legal fee of those making the demand. Now that WSCUHSD has declared their intent to change their process, they are in “Safe Harbor” and exempt from paying those legal fees should a “demand letter” be received.

WSCUHSD voluntarily and with unanimous board approval is commencing this process. They didn’t receive a letter threatening litigation, but as previously reported, they did receive a letter from a parent’s group which was similarly worded to one. After consultation with legal consul, and even though the parent’s group withdrew the letter, the district decided to put the issue on this month’s agenda with a supporting resolution. Jonathon Salt of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, LLP provided the board and listening public an overview of the CVRA and process for this change. This is the same firm that guided CRPUSD in 2019-2020. The change must be based on the most recent census. For WSCUSHD that means the data coming out this summer. For Rohnert Park and CRPUSD it was the 2010 data; however, both will have to review their districts and make appropriate adjustments to them based on 2020 data. Everyone will have to do the same every ten years when new census data is published. 

Once that data is available, a consultant who specializes in demographics will be hired to assist in creating these By-Trustee districts. A minimum of three maps are required that meet the requirements of the CVRA and Education Codes. There will be two public hearings before any map is presented to explain the process and get input. After draft maps are prepared, an additional three public hearings will be required. Once a map is chosen by the school board, further review and approval will be required from the Sonoma County Office of Education and the State. This includes requesting a waiver to not hold a general election on the question. These waivers are routinely approved.

In other meeting news, the board approved a variance in credits for graduation in 2021 because of the impact of COVID-19 and Distance Learning. This variance, already used at Laguna High School, the district’s continuation high school, means that 22 seniors who were at risk of not graduating on-time will receive their diplomas if they have met state credit guidelines. Currently the district requires more credits to graduate than the state does. Student Achievement plans were approved for all three high schools. Required annually, they set out goals and objectives for schools to follow in improving student success. They also approved the school calendar for 2021-2022 and the monthly budget update. The next meeting on March 10, includes the second Interim Report and required Fiscal Recovery program.