Threat of lawsuit prompted change from at-large elections

Published in the March 2-15, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

mhusd-logoFor the first time in the Morgan Hill Unified School District’s history, candidates for the school board will run in trustee areas that they reside in. The Santa Clara County Committee on School District Organization voted 7-2 on Feb. 22 to approve the proposal to establish trustee areas within the district.

The process for the change came about when MHUSD Superintendent Steve Betando early last year received a letter from a law firm challenging whether or not the board members represents the demographics of Morgan Hill.

“We proceeded to invest a lot of money into researching the issue with a demographer with an attorney group and it brought us to the point that on March 10 I recommended an approval for a resolution to the board to consider a change.”

Lawyers advised trustees that because of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (which makes it easier for minority groups to prove their votes are being diminished by at-large elections), if the change was not made the threat of a lawsuit was a strong possibility. Such a threat came from the group Community Action Coalition when one of its leaders, Julian Mancias, told the board at the June 23 meeting the district was trying to “dilute the Latino vote.”

The school board voted unanimously Aug. 4 to move forward to change the district’s election format from an at-large trustees election to one where voters choose from candidates living in their respective districts. The district requested a waiver from the state of California’s Department of Education that a election by the public was not necessary to make the change. It received the waiver in January, allowing the county committee members to vote on the resolution.

Speaking against the decision to move to trustee areas was Julie Zintsmaster who served on the MHUSD board of education in the 1990s, and was administrative support for four superintendents during 17 years.

“I know that our board of education has approved this change from at-large to trustee areas and that your vote tonight will make it official. This change to trustee areas, in my opinion, disenfranchises voters,” she said. “Those who are demanding it say it will increase the opportunity for minority candidates to run for the board and serve on it. In the case of Morgan Hill, I believe trustee areas will decrease the opportunity for all citizens to not only run for the board but to vote for board members who align with their views and principles.”

Zintsmaster said because of her residence location in Morgan Hill, she will not be able to vote until the 2018 election and can only vote for one candidate for one seat. She won’t be able to run for a seat until 2018. After that, she will be able to vote every four years instead of every two years.
“All voters in the district will be in the same situation,” she said.

Betando told the committee that the decision to make the change was because the district didn’t think it was wise to spend potentially millions of dollars on a lawsuit it was unlikely to win.

“My recommendation for the approval of the change and the trustee representation is purely based on wanting to save the district money,” he said. “In my opinion, I have not seen that it will improve the representation of the Latino population, but that was the impetus to the challenge to our current trustee representation.”

Based on a map approved by the board, there will be seven trustee areas for the MHUSD. Five trustee areas had been a consideration but the Latino group members who spoke at board meetings did not approve this option.

“When you think of the percentage if one of the trustee areas has more than a majority Latino population then the other four, that’s a higher percentage than one out of seven that represents on a board if that’s how in fact the demographics came out on a trustee election,” Betando said. “I believe that it’s important for the population that people vote for who they believe can represent the entire population rather than a particular group. I have seen where there are school districts and city governments where the members will tend to vie for issues that are beneficial to their constituency rather than the whole.”

He suggested that perhaps at a future point in time, the school district can look at whether or not the trustee area elections are benefiting minorities with more representation and, if not, the district might consider reverting back to the previous at-large district elections.

Committee member Kathy Sullivan voted no, along with committee member Jim Van Pernis, on the resolution because she does not believe trustee-area elections will achieve the goal of more diverse representation.

“I feel really sorry for the board not to be able to make a decision on what was best for the children and the voters or even the population that might not be as represented as well,” she said. “It was strictly a dollars and cents thing and they were doing that for the reason to save money for the kids. However, someone has to say that ‘This is not helping.’ Somebody just has to say, ‘Enough, this isn’t fair.’ People should not be bullied into doing things that are not really going to achieve good goals that I can see. Strictly from a standpoint of doing right, I’m going to vote no.”