The Solana Beach School District board held its first public hearing on Dec. 12 as it prepares to transition to by-trustee voting areas for elections.
The changeover kicked off when the district received a demand letter from local attorney Craig Sherman alleging that they were in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. After a complaint is filed a governing agency has to pass a resolution within 45 days, starting a 90-day litigation-free safe harbor period. The district passed its resolution to move ahead with the process on Nov. 21.
At the first public hearing, just one resident provided input. A second hearing was held on Dec. 17 (after press time for this newspaper).
“We typically get more input once the actual draft maps are out,” said demographer Doug Johnson, president of National Demographic Corporation.
Draft maps will be presented for input at board meetings on Jan. 16 and Jan. 23. According to Solana Beach School District Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger, the board plans to adopt the new map on Feb. 13, 2020 and it will become effective in the November 2020 election in which two board seats are up for grabs.
The California legislature enacted the CVRA in 2002, prohibiting the use of at-large elections of governing board members if it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”
At least 216 school districts, 34 college districts and 120 cities in California have since made the switch —before CVRA there were only 29 cities in the state with district elections, now there are 150.
“It’s been a quiet tsunami sweeping the state,” Johnson said.
On Dec. 12, Solana Beach Mayor Jewel Edson and Deputy Mayor Judy Hegenauer were present to support the district in its efforts—the city of Solana Beach just went through its own CVRA process and will move to district elections in 2020. The San Dieguito Union High School District also changed to by-trustee area elections in 2018.
“I’m excited about this process, I think it’s long overdue I think it’s going to be wonderful to have a lot of diverse voices on the school board representing everyone in the community,” said Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Bruce Cameron.
Cameron said the board needs to make sure they have “diverse but active voices” that represent the entire district and not just special interests. He said it would be too easy to look at attendance boundaries and automatically equate that to a seat on the board, suggesting splitting up into areas of Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and the area west of El Camino Real and divide the larger Carmel Valley area into two pieces, including Pacific Highlands Ranch.
Johnson went over the legal requirements that go into dividing the school district into by-trustee areas. Each district has to have an equal population and race cannot be a predominant factor. Traditional redistricting principles include keeping together communities of interest and school attendance areas, keeping districts compact and contiguous, and considering planned future growth.
One consideration will be if community of interests want to be united or do they want to be divided to have a voice in multiple elections, Johnson said.
The data the district is using for its maps includes the demographic survey from the 2010 Census, the American Community Survey (ACS) and voter registration and turnout from the 2016 and 2018 elections.
Per the 2010 census, there were about 38,000 people living in the school district boundaries but ACS population estimates put the population at about 41,465 circa 2015. The board understands that the numbers are not exact as there has been significant growth in the Pacific Highlands Ranch area in the last 10 years.
Per the demographic study, the district is 73 percent white, 15 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic and one percent black. There is a slight concentration of Latino voters west of Interstate 5 and a concentration of Asian voters in Carmel Valley, particularly along Del Mar Heights and Carmel Valley Road. Seventy-two percent of the district speaks English at home, 5 percent speak Spanish, 12 percent speak an Asian language and 10 percent speak another language. While they are speaking multiple languages at home, only 9 percent speak English less than very well.
The timing of Solana Beach’s changeover is tricky as per CVRA, maps are required to be reviewed and adjusted after every census. That means the district will have to go through the map process again in 2022, after the 2020 Census is released.
SBSD Vice President Richard Leib wanted to know if it would be possible to reach out the attorney to see if they could wait, given the time and effort of doing the process twice in two years.
Johnson said the process won’t be as comprehensive in 2022 and if they wait, they run the risk of getting another letter. He reminded the board that no jurisdiction has won a CVRA case—while still appealing, the city of Santa Monica has spent $5 to $8 million on the lawsuit defense; the plantiffs requested $22 million.
“The only safe harbor is to go right now,” Johnson said.