The Kern High School District’s unexpected decision Monday to redraw its trustee boundaries is a smart one — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it gets the board out in front of a wave of courtroom verdicts and judicial decrees that are facilitating an unprecedented surge in Latino political muscle.
Things have changed over the years in Kern County in terms of demographics and the KHSD surely looks better in the eyes of voters — yes, voters are a factor here — for having recognized it. The district has had some epic PR failures in the past few years, most of them self-inflicted, so anything that demonstrates pragmatism has to be a plus.
A pending lawsuit that would have required the KHSD to redraw voting districts anyway was no small factor, of course. Let's not give the district too much credit. But the board — comprised of four non-Hispanic white men and a Hispanic man — could have chosen to follow the lead of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which, following a judge's order that they redraw district lines to better represent Latino voters, was said to be considering an appeal — a dead-on-arrival challenge that would have just wasted another trunkful of taxpayer dollars.
Now, the question is, which of Kern County's other elected bodies have boards or councils that reasonably mirror the demographics of the people they serve? The answer produces a mixed bag.
One thing stands out: Women are dramatically underrepresented.
But Hispanics don't fare particularly well either.
The five-member Kern County Board of Supervisors has four white men and a Latina woman in a county that is fully half Hispanic — and fully half female.
The Kern Community College District's seven-member board of trustees, which runs Bakersfield College (18,000 students), Porterville College (4,000 students) and Ridgecrest's Cerro Coso Community College (4,600 students), includes five white men, a white woman and a Filipino (and half Hispanic) man. Bakersfield College, which is substantially Latino, is the most strongly represented on the board with four of those trustees; east Kern, Porterville and Delano have one each. The only nonwhite, Romeo Agbalog, represents Delano and surrounding cities.
The seven-member Bakersfield City Council has four non-Hispanic white men, two Hispanic men and a white woman, which falls short of the city's ethnic/racial breakdown. The city — whose mayor is an Asian woman — is 48.3 percent Hispanic, up from 32.5 percent in 2000.
The five-member board of the Bakersfield City School District, a K-8 district that serves 31,000 students in east Bakersfield, might have the most diverse representation in the county: a white man, a white woman, a Latina woman, an African-American man and a vacancy, created by the health-related departure of a Latino man, that will be filled in an April 10 special election.
The five-member board of the Panama Buena-Vista School District, a K-8 district that serves 18,000 students in west and southwest Bakersfield, has three white men, an African-American man and a Latina woman.
The five-member Greenfield School District, a K-8 district that serves 9,400 students in south Bakersfield, has three non-Hispanic women and two men, one of whom is Hispanic.
Many districts have moved to better reflect their respective constituencies by switching their boards from "at-large" representation — wherein all of the trustees are elected by all of the voters to represent the entire district — to the "by-trustee" model, in which each segment of the district selects its own representative.
Dozens of California school districts made the switch to encourage racial and ethnic diversity on their boards — and avoid being sued under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which bans at-large elections.
"Panama was forthright" and made the switch seven years ago, said PBVSD board chairman Keith Wolaridge. "That's how we got (trustee) Ana Rojas," the board's only Hispanic and its only woman.
Now school districts and other governing bodies are dealing with part two of this great shift: Efforts to force cities, counties and school districts to draw those "by trustee" districts in such a way that minority populations actually have a chance to select minority representatives, if that's what they choose to do.
A candidate's ethnicity shouldn't be the sole criterion for voters in any election; diligence, intelligence and heart should rank higher. But voters should have a chance to consider candidates whose lives resemble theirs. The Kern High School District's board of trustees, whatever their various motivations may be, deserves credit for seeing that.
Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.