Education Matters: Mapping the future in San Dieguito school board elections

Big changes are coming to San Dieguito Union High School District’s school board elections in 2018.

SDUHSD is transitioning to by-trustee elections, which means citizens will vote for school board candidates who reside in their particular sub-area, rather than at-large elections held district-wide.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change.

Maps that divide the district into five sub-areas, each with generally the same population, have been created. Special meetings have been held throughout the district in the last few weeks to present the maps to the public, with minimal interest.

At the Dec. 14 school board meeting, the five trustees will choose a final map. Anyone interested in how these maps will affect voters should plan to attend the meeting.

Depending upon where you live, you’ll vote for only those candidates who reside in your small area, which will be approximately one-fifth the size of the entire San Dieguito district.

Each of the proposed maps gives existing trustees their own area. If two trustees were placed in the same area, the incumbent elected in 2016 through 2020 would take precedence and the one up for re-election in 2018 would not be allowed to run.

Maps with each trustee in a separate area is not incumbent protection, said a spokesperson from National Demographics Corp., the company that created the maps. Rather, this gives voters the ability to decide who should represent them instead of a restrictive map boundary.

Because two trustees — Joyce Dalessandro and Beth Hergesheimer — were just elected in 2016 and will serve until 2020, anyone living in their areas will not be voting for SDUHSD school board in 2018.

The other three trustees — Amy Herman, Maureen Muir and John Salazar — are up for re-election in 2018, should they decide to run again. If you live in one of their specific areas, you will see candidates on your ballot in 2018, but only those who reside in your area.

Hergesheimer and Muir live in Encinitas, Dalessandro and Herman live in the Carmel Valley area, and Salazar lives in Rancho Santa Fe.

Several North County school districts — including Carlsbad, Oceanside and San Marcos — are changing to by-trustee voting areas, as are the cities of Poway and Encinitas.

Voting Rights Act

The purpose of transitioning to by-trustee elections stems from a movement to give minority groups more say in who represents them.

This shift speaks to the need for more social justice in local government. People who live in less affluent neighborhoods who don’t have the means to campaign or run district-wide would benefit.

Based on alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act, claims have been made that district-wide elections unfairly discriminate against under-represented groups of citizens.

Dividing large districts into smaller sub-districts resolves this concern, the claim goes.

On the flip side, the danger is that sub-area board members could be less likely to support the needs of the district as a whole, being beholden only to their individual constituents.

According to National Demographics Corp., total population for the San Dieguito district is 165,839. When separated into five distinct areas, the ideal population per area is 33,168.

However, the number that matters for voting purposes, according to NDC, is the Citizen Voting Age population, which counts eligible voters. This total number is 119,226 — or about 23,845 per area.

NDC calculated SDUHSD at about 10 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian and 75 percent white.

Of eligible voters, the Hispanic population is fairly evenly distributed at 6 to 9 percent in each of the five proposed sub-districts.

The Asian population is concentrated in the southern portion of the district where it ranges from 11 to 24 percent in the areas that encompass all of Carmel Valley and some parts of Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe.

Of the maps being considered, some divide communities; other maps keep them whole. Some maps follow school attendance lines; others do not.

In some maps, Del Mar is in the same voting area as most of Solana Beach — while in another map Del Mar and Solana Beach are separated, with Del Mar and parts of Carmel Valley together and Solana Beach coupled with most of Rancho Santa Fe.

In the north, Encinitas is generally divided into two segments, east and west. But one map includes Cardiff with west Encinitas, while other proposed maps have Cardiff in the same areas as Solana Beach and parts of Rancho Santa Fe.

The map that’s selected will not be permanent. According to the NDC, the lines will need to be redrawn after the 2020 census.

Proposed maps are available at sduhsd.net, and the board will make this significant decision at its Dec. 14 meeting at 6:30 at the district office in Encinitas.

Closed session concerns

In a related matter, San Dieguito’s school board held a closed session meeting on Nov. 2 to take a first look at proposed maps.

Besides the five trustees, also in attendance at this meeting, which was closed to the public, were an attorney, Jonathan Salt, from the firm of Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill, Dill’s executive assistant — and, inexplicably, associate superintendents Tina Douglas, Michael Grove and Mark Miller.

The agenda item listing this meeting cited a government code that Dill now admits was wrong.

“Thank you for bringing this clerical issue to our attention,” Dill wrote to me in an email. Saying the code appears “to be mis-cited,” he called this a “minor correction.”

Some attorneys, including Nikki Moore, would disagree — particularly because this was not a one-time error. Moore is legal counsel for the California News Publishers Association.

Because the wrong code has been used multiple times in the past for closed session items, the problem is systemic.

The penalty may be negligible, except in extreme cases where it’s possible that all decisions made under a mis-cited government code can be overthrown or deemed invalid.

Also questionable is whether the detailed discussion by trustees on the proposed election maps — which included the decision to eliminate a fourth proposed map — was legitimate for a closed session meeting.

The claim that this was instead a matter of public policy has merit.

The heading used on the agenda to justify the closed meeting, “Current and/or Potential Litigation,” does not seem to apply in this case, since there was no threat of litigation.

Other cities and school boards have received a letter from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman demanding that they switch away from at-large elections to comply with the California Voting Rights Act, or face a possible lawsuit.

However, San Dieguito has not received such a letter and has not been threatened with a lawsuit. The district chose to proceed with the change on its own.

Shenkman said there doesn’t seem to be any anticipated or threatened litigation in this case as described and questioned the rationale for meeting in closed session.

“As a general matter … the over-arching purpose [to adopt by-trustee elections] is to bring the public into the process,” he said, calling a closed-session meeting “antithetical” to that purpose.

In an email, Dill said, “Actual or even threatened litigation is not required in order to properly meet and confer with legal counsel in closed session.”

Privileged information

When individual board members are asked in closed session if they agree to proceed in a particular manner on an issue, and if all agree, then consensus is reached.

This was the case at the Nov. 2 closed session meeting about the maps.

But according to some legal authorities, agreement “by consensus” constitutes “action taken,” even if it wasn’t a formal vote.

Yet Dill said, “There was no action taken in closed session on November 2 and therefore no report out.”

In response to my complaint about the closed session discussion, Dill expressed concern that confidential information was revealed.

But whistle-blowers who believe that what’s discussed veers off-topic from what’s specifically allowed may have legal protection and could conceivably claim that this material is not confidential and is likely no longer privileged information, attorney Moore said.

This is particularly relevant if the wrong government code is cited to explain the closed-door meeting.

If a topic is not a closed session item, then it is a public item. Closed session cannot be used to hide what should be discussed in public.

Good angels

The maps look reasonable. What’s concerning is the closed session process used by trustees to first review the maps — with an improper government code, no threat of litigation, and private discussion of a seemingly public policy matter.

As I wrote to Dill, “The public entrusts its elected officials to adhere to the principles of the open-meeting Brown Act, and they in turn rely upon you as their superintendent to ensure that the law is followed.

“Because discussions take place behind closed doors, we the public have no way of knowing when a conversation or consensus has been reached that might not qualify as legitimate for a closed session meeting.”

Watching helplessly from outside closed doors, the public can only appeal to elected officials’ “good angels” to do the right thing.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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