County Office of Education takes over San Dieguito’s election map process

SDUHSD Clerk Julie Bronstein addresses the board at the March 30 meeting.

The San Diego County Office of Education board voted to take over San Dieguito Union High School District’s controversial redistricting process, making the decision in a special meeting held on April 4. The board voted unanimously to develop a “timely and qualified” trustee area election map for San Dieguito before April 30, holding its own public meeting on April 6 at 6 p.m.

The San Diego County Committee on School District Organization will again discuss the maps on April 13, planning to take action on an alternative map by April 20.

The deadline to submit a qualified map to the county was Feb. 28 and the San Dieguito board held a special meeting on March 30 to “renew and ratify” the adoption of its map in order to “cure and correct” alleged Brown Act violations.

Once the deadline to submit a qualified map was missed, the County Committee on School District Organization then has a mandatory duty to adjust the trustee area boundaries of a school district within its jurisdiction.

The San Dieguito district received a letter from attorney Corey Briggs on Feb. 28 regarding alleged Brown Act violations at the Feb. 10, 17 and 24 meetings. While the district does not agree that any violation of the Brown Act occurred, out of an abundance of caution, eight items were placed on the March 30 special board meeting agenda to address the request to “cure and correct” violations, including the public hearing on the final map and the ratification of the map.

Briggs is the attorney representing San Diego resident Carol Chang and Solana Beach resident Lisa Montes in a lawsuit against the district over its approval of map 8—alleging that the rearranged map is illegal, disenfranchises voters, substantially cracks the Hispanic/Latino and Asian American populations and was re-drawn to give a political advantage to the board majority.

At the March 30 meeting, there was a lot of confusion from the public about why the board was repeating the eight items. Taking advantage of a repeat public hearing, parents and community members asked the board to rescind map 8, adding that the only way to properly cure and correct the issues was to start over from scratch or delegate authority to adjust the maps to the county.

Community members said that a public hearing on a map that has already been approved and submitted to the county was a farce and using taxpayer money to fight the lawsuit and defend map 8 is fiscally irresponsible. They opposed map 8 as it splits up Solana Beach, cuts up Cardiff, carves up Carmel Valley and impairs the voting rights of a protected class, the antithesis of the California Voters Rights Act (CVRA).

Solana Beach residents said they feel map 8 divides their community like “a jigsaw puzzle”, splitting up a 3.5-square mile city into three separate trustee areas and disenfranchising the significant Latino community in La Colonia De Eden Gardens.

“They’re a community that has been here for generations and endured fights and struggles that you and I can only imagine,” said Solana Beach resident Kelly Harless. “How awful that they had to hire an attorney in an attempt to keep their voice in the district.”

Harless, speaking as a resident and not in her role as a Solana Beach City Councilmember, said the district’s redistricting process has been “shockingly flawed” and that the meeting itself was an acknowledgment that violations occurred: “This board has lost its compass and I really hope you find your way back, starting today.”

At the meeting, Trustee Katrina Young made a motion to rescind map 8 and have the San Diego County Office of Education make the selection for them, putting the district in “a better position of moving forward in a unified way”, but it failed 2-3 with only Clerk Julie Bronstein in support.

SDUHSD Vice President Michael Allman moved to renew and ratify map 8 which passed 3-2 with Allman, President Mo Muir and Trustee Melisse Mossy voting in favor.

The purpose of the redistricting process is to adjust the trustee area map using new data from the 2020 census, recognizing the significant growth in the Pacific Highlands Ranch community and creating a balance among the boundary areas without splitting up a protected class. As the district’s map was out of compliance with a total variance of 27.9%, the goal was to achieve a variance below 10%. Trustee Young pointed out that with a variance of 5.9%, the selected map 8 has the ninth highest variance of the 12 maps under consideration.

A board resolution, approved 3-2 on Feb. 24, spelled out the district’s redistricting process that included presentations at four January board meetings and outreach efforts to receive feedback, including the opportunity for community members to submit maps. Proposed maps were posted on the district’s website for public input although some community members challenged that a corrected map 8 was changed prior to the Feb. 17 meeting without adequate time for review. The final three maps were selected on Feb. 10 after a four-hour closed session meeting and the final map was selected after nearly six hours of board debate in open session.

At the Feb. 24 meeting, Bronstein said she was deeply concerned by the resolution, which she found to be inaccurate.

“It provides a false narrative as to the process that has occurred vis-à-vis informing the public of our actions on the CVRA act,” Bronstein said. “The primary problem with the resolution is it is a propaganda and PR piece written to portray the board as if we have engaged in a transparent and communicative process…when that is absolutely not the case.”

She said the board should have waived attorney-client privilege to allow the board’s attorney to provide his opinion on the maps in public (which occurred in closed session) and that they should have discussed all of the maps in public.

“This process has been flawed throughout and is disrespectful to the taxpayers of our community who had every right to learn about the benefits and risks of all the maps,” Bronstein said. “The decision was arrived at arbitrarily, capriciously, and discriminatorily and is not in the best interest of the students and staff of our district.”

At another special meeting on Feb. 28, the board “renewed and ratified” the adoption of the map and the resolution “in order to cure and correct” any alleged Brown Act violations with respect to the board’s approval of the resolution on Feb. 17 and Feb. 24 respectively, following a public question about whether the Brown Act was followed.

The board voted 3-1 with Young opposed to accepting the two motions as she still had serious concerns about the process and the map itself. (Bronstein was unable to attend).

At the March 30 meeting, Bronstein held up a large print of map 8, showing how it “drastically” and “illogically” carves up Area 5, particularly how it cuts specifically around her house, putting her in Area 3. Voters just elected Bronstein to her Area 5 seat in the November 2021 special election —the term was set to expire in 2022.

As the new map leaves both Mossy and Allman in Area 4, Mossy will need to step off the board when her term expires this year and would not be able to run again until 2024. Area 5 is now in Area 3 so Bronstein will be required to run in her new area in November 2022 and Area 5 would be open for a new board member.

Young now lives in Area 1 as does President Mo Muir, so Young will remain the Area 2 representative for the remainder of her term until 2024. Muir will be unable to run in 2022.

Bronstein said it was never explained why the area numbers were switched: “It makes no sense.” Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward revealed the author of map 8 to be T. Nguyen—none of the board members said they knew who that was and the district has not been able to contact him.

Bronstein said the initial maps created by the demographer made only minor adjustments and kept at least one high school in each area. With map 8, Area 3 does not include a high school although it does include Earl Warren and Carmel Valley Middle Schools.

Allman said the criteria to have one high school in each area wasn’t as meaningful to him as once they are elected, board members serve everybody in the entire district: “I don’t know that it’s completely healthy to say we’re only responsible for one school.”

Muir, Allman and Mossy did not agree with the opinion that the process was flawed—Muir that she allowed all board members time to share their views and believed the board did take and consider public input.

“It’s not that anybody isn’t listening but these are judgment calls that we have to make,” Allman said.

While the first three exemplary maps had a very low variance, Mossy said they were drawn as essentially a math problem, they did not look at communities, they only looked at the numbers. Mossy said in making her decision, she listened to legal counsel’s advice and the county’s letter, she was told the census blocks were not interrupted and that the coastal and inland zones were contiguous.

The first meeting held in public since the pandemic, tensions ran high and many public comments were critical of the board. Many times speakers asked Allman to look up from his computer when they were speaking, accusing him of not listening. At one point, Mossy had to ask a parent to stop making distracting facial expressions, dancing and making fun of her while she spoke.

In her comments, Mossy denied accusations that she had personal or political motivations in her map selection: “I agreed to this map and it eliminates me.”

“We’re not here for money, we’re not here for power, we’re not here for prestige, we’re here to make a difference. We’re here to support our students, especially our English language learners and our disenfranchised students,” Mossy said. “I hear all of you loud and clear and what you have to say matters to me… I don’t mean to be defensive and I’m sincerely grateful that you’re here but if you guys could support us, we really do need to come together to unify our district.”