Jose Mireles calls his hometown of Lamont a “ghost town.”
For the 48 years he’s lived in the heavily Latino populated farmworker community, there’s been little progress.
The unincorporated town has no elected city council, no mayor and no high school — something that community members have been rallying for aggressively since at least 2006.
But they also have lacked a representative on the Kern High School District board of trustees who lives in the area. Their demands, some say, have fallen on the deaf ears of trustees who don’t live in Lamont, are mostly Caucasian and out of touch with the Latino experience in Kern County.
“We’ve been trying to work with them ... and they still come up with excuses. I don’t think it’s right. They’re there to represent us and make sure our kids have the best education, and they’re not doing it,” said Mireles, a member of Comite de Progresso en Lamont, a community organization devoted to creating progress and better representation in their hometown.
Things could change, however, in the coming months. Under threat of lawsuit, KHSD trustees announced Monday they would begin the process of redrawing their voting boundaries to give greater representation to Latino communities on the board, which is currently made up of one Hispanic man, Jeff Flores, and four white men — Mike Williams, Phillip Peters, Bryan Batey and, Lamont’s representative, Joey O’Connell.
Despite trustees being charged with a geographically vast and expansive district that spans most of Kern County, four of the board members live in southwest and northwest Bakersfield, many within less than 1 mile of each other.
That’s because the current boundary lines for trustee voting areas converge in Bakersfield’s metro areas. Mike Williams, for example, who represents an area that spans into impoverished Kern River Valley, lives in the Rosedale neighborhood west of Renfro Road.
O’Connell, who represents perhaps the most underserved Latino-majority communities in KHSD, has an area that spans from the Wasco city limits through southwest Bakersfield and into Arvin.
His listed address is a palatial 6,600-square-foot home north of Stockdale Highway worth more than $1 million, according to multiple realty websites.
It isn’t representative of the experience in Lamont, where the per-capita income between 2012 and 2016 was about $11,500, and the median home value was about $100,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many families live doubled and tripled up to a household.
“Lumping the community with other areas that don’t have the same interests doesn’t make sense. You have this low-income community and we’re living paycheck to paycheck,” said Jose Gonzales, president of the Lamont Chamber of Commerce.
The recent decision has Lamont residents and community organizers excited at the prospect of gaining greater political power, and with it, the possibility of a KHSD board representative who could hail from their hometown, instead of Bakersfield, which has long been the trend.
“We’ve been waiting for a community member on that board to represent us and now we’ve been given an opportunity,” Gonzales said. “This community has been ignored far too long.”
If lines are redrawn before November, Latino-majority communities could have the power to oust Peters, Williams and Batey, all of whom are up for re-election this year. O’Connell and Flores’ terms end in 2020. If lines are redrawn after November, trustees could be allowed to finish out their terms, even if there are board members living in overlapping boundaries, said Kern County elections chief Karen Rhea. The district has said it plans to adopt final boundary adjustments by May 14, and a special meeting will be hosted March 19 to start the process.
Gonzales was critical of O’Connell, who he said has not supported Lamont’s efforts to build a new high school in town. Students from that city are currently bused to Arvin High School, which community advocates describe as overcrowded.
A trustee from Lamont could, at best, convince trustees to build a new high school in town, and at the very least, communicate to trustees the types of issues with which Latino-majority communities struggle, said Matthew Ross, superintendent of Vineland School District in Weedpatch.
A board member from Lamont or Arvin could bring to KHSD trustees concerns about health care access in migrant communities and the potential it has to impact student success, and the lack of parent involvement and strategies to engage them, Ross said.
Both issues are frequently discussed on Vineland’s school board, he said.
“It’s so important to get somebody on the high school district board who truly represents this area, lives in the area, and understands the concerns and dynamics here,” Ross said.
O’Connell didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but has said during past public meetings that he’s committed to helping Arvin and Lamont residents.
“I’m so sorry you feel like we are not paying attention to what you’re saying,” O’Connell told Lamont residents at a board meeting in February. “I want you to know that we’re trying.”
Mireles criticized the district’s commitment to spend millions of dollars from bond measures to construct high school swimming pools, but nothing for a high school in Lamont.
“It makes me mad. They’re there to represent us. I don’t know why they don’t want to,” Mireles said.
At this point, it’s unclear if anybody from the Lamont or Arvin communities is considering mounting a campaign to unseat any KHSD trustees, however Gonzales said that the shake-up of district boundaries will give the community the opportunity to reflect on the issue and find a suitable candidate.
“Who in our community represents us and is willing to fight for us in our interest, so we can send them to the board to fight and represent us?” Gonzales pondered. “At this point, it’s a good opportunity for community members who really represent the values of Arvin and Lamont to stand up.”