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Solana Beach district to move away from at-large school board elections

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(Courtesy)

The Solana Beach School District will start the process of transitioning to a by-trustee area election after receiving a demand letter alleging that the district is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The Solana Beach district joins many other elected bodies throughout the state that have had to respond to threats of costly litigation for violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The CVRA prohibits 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.” A violation of the CVRA is established if it is shown that racially polarized voting has occurred in a district’s governing board election.

“The only safe harbor provision from a CVRA claim is to change to a by-trustee area election system,” said Solana Beach Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger, adding that the district would be divided into trustee areas and only voters that live within that area would be able to vote for the candidates for that area.

The San Dieguito Union High School District underwent the same process in 2017, as did the city of Solana Beach in 2018. (Solana Beach will switch from at-large elections to district-based elections in 2020.)

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Local attorney Craig Sherman sent the demand letter to the district on Oct. 15. After a complaint is filed the governing agency has to pass a resolution within 45 days, starting the 90-day litigation-free safe harbor period.

The board passed a resolution at its Nov. 21 meeting and public participation is encouraged as they decide how the district’s areas should be split up. The first CVRA hearings will be held Thursday, Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Skyline School and Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 4 p.m. at the district office.

Draft plan maps will then be developed with more public hearings in January, leading to board approval of the map in February. The selected map will then go to the San Diego County Committee on School District Organization for approval and if the committee approves the change, the new voting areas would take effect in the November 2020 election.

“By-trustee voting does not change our overall district boundaries, it does not change our school attendance boundaries,” Brentlinger said. “It does not change how the school district is governed because, most importantly, we are still one district with common goals, successes and challenges. What I think is so unique about the Solana Beach School District board is their commitment to all students and all schools here in our district.”

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Brentlinger did not have an estimate of how much the process will cost although the district will have to hire a demographer to help draw the new map for about $20,000.

The issue of CVRA was first raised at the board’s meeting on Oct. 10, when they decided not to build the district’s eighth school in Pacific Highlands Ranch. The district’s potential CVRA violation was mentioned by Jeffrey Anson, a law clerk for Sherman, who had been hired by a group of Pacific Highlands Ranch residents to represent their interests.

Anson accused the board of making a decision that affected Pacific Highlands Ranch residents without having a voice for those parents and students on the board.

A Pacific Highlands Ranch resident did run in the 2018 election but was not elected.

Information on the CVRA process can be found at www.sbsd.k12.ca.us/cvra


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