Kern High School District trustees began the process of redrawing their voting areas Monday, a decision they made this month to deliver more representation to Latino majority communities in the wake of a judge’s ruling that the Kern County Board of Supervisors' district lines violated federal law.
Trustees voted unanimously to adopt a set of criteria for redrawing boundaries that includes taking into account population equality, compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, maintaining communities of interest, and avoiding head-to-head contests between incumbent trustees, among other considerations.
They must draw at least two areas that include Latino majority districts, legal counsel advised trustees Monday evening.
“We’re asking you to take those communities of interest into account when redrawing lines, and sensibly redraw lines around these communities,” Gerald Cantu, the education policy director with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, told board members. “Take those communities of interest seriously.”
The decision to redraw district lines came amid a lawsuit the Dolores Huerta Foundation planned to file against KHSD accusing it of gerrymandering voting areas to exclude Latino representation.
Trustees said earlier this month that the decision was a way to save taxpayer money defending the district from what could have likely been a long, drawn-out legal battle.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Dolores Huerta delivered this warning: “If they don’t draw decent lines, the lawsuit is there, ready to file.”
Roughly 65 percent of all KHSD's students are Latino; however, the board of trustees is made up of four white men — Trustees Phillip Peters, Bryan Batey, Joey O'Connell and Mike Williams — and one Hispanic, Jeff Flores. All of them are Republicans.
“We have cause to be upset,” Sophia Garcia, a GIS mapping specialist with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, told a group of supporters before the meeting. She held up five maps, many with red splotches speckled across the page. They represented Latino majority populations.
Those Latino communities in Trustee Areas 2 and 3 — currently represented by Flores and O’Connell — have been growing. When the lines were drawn in 2011, roughly 52 percent of eligible voters living in Area 2 were Hispanic, according to US Census Bureau records. Now it’s about 58 percent. In Area 3, 46 percent of eligible voters were Hispanic in 2011. Now it’s almost 51 percent.
“We would not want to reduce the voting power of those trustee areas,” Shelley Lapkoff, a demographer with Lapkoff and Gobalet Demographic Research, told trustees.
Area 3, however, could be drawn smaller to account for anticipated population growth in the area, which is outpacing any other part of Bakersfield, Lapkoff said.
Trustee Mike Williams questioned why other “communities of race,” including African Americans, Asians, Indians and Pakistanis were not being considered the way Latinos were when redrawing boundaries.
Redrawing boundaries to accommodate specific race groups is not required, unless they can form a majority of eligible voters in an area, like in the case of Latinos, said Marguerite Leoni, a senior litigation partner with Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, a San Francisco-based law firm that specializes in voting rights practices.
Doing the same for any other race in Kern County other than Caucasians would be impossible, Lapkoff said.
Additionally, the recent Luna vs Kern County lawsuit established specific communities of interest, including Arvin and Shafter, which could be taken into account when lines are redrawn, Leoni said.
“Communities of interest are what your citizens say they are,” Leoni said.
And members of those communities called on trustees to take care when redrawing the lines, and not to split up communities like Lamont or Arvin to dilute votes.
“I hope you guys do right by us and don’t destroy the community we’re in,” Leticia Prado, a board member of the Lamont Public Utilities District, told trustees through a translator.
Others called on trustees representing their interests to live in their communities. Despite representing a geographically vast and expansive district that spans much of Kern County, four of the board members live in southwest and northwest Bakersfield, many within less than one mile of each other.
“We implore the board to not take their self-interest above the interest of the communities or the students of the Kern High School District,” Garcia told board members.