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Lakeside Union switches from at-large districts for its trustees

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Donald Suburu School in the Lakeside Union School District.

Lakeside Union School District is planning to change the way it elects its school board for the 2022 election.

The southwest Bakersfield school district of about 1,400 students plans to switch from having at-large trustees represent the district to a by-trustee area election system. This means trustees would represent a specific geographic area. 

Superintendent Ty Bryson wrote in an email to The Californian that the district considered making changes after the 2010 census, but given the size and configuration of the district, it didn't make sense to make changes at the time. Bryson said the district continued to study the issue but made the change when the threat of litigation was on the horizon.

Many school districts in the county, including the Kern High School District and Bakersfield City School District, made the switch from at-large board positions after the 2010 census. They, too, cited the threat of litigation. Larger districts, especially, also cited the reduced cost of elections, since it shrunk the size of a candidate's constituency.

In 2018, Lakeside Union received a letter from Kevin Shenkman, partner at Shenkman & Hughes, on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Education, an organization that represents Latino voters. It stated that the district's at-large elections result in "minority vote dilution."

"After receiving a demand from an attorney, the Board determined it would be in the district’s best interest to make the change in election systems for the 2022 elections to avoid the cost of litigation under the California Voting Rights Act, despite some inaccuracies in the demand letter," Bryson wrote.

Shenkman's letter stated that more than 30 percent of the district population is Latino, according to 2009 American Community Survey data and that more than 59 percent of its students are Latino, according to 2017-18 district figures. It stated that no Latino has been elected to the school board, and only one Latino candidate has run over the last 20 years, performing poorly in the majority-white district.

"Therefore, not only is the contrast between the significant Latino proportion of the electorate and the absence of Latinos to be elected to the District's Board outwardly disturbing, it is also fundamentally hostile towards Latino participation," Shenkman writes.

A resolution passed by the board in February 2019, which set the electoral changes in motion, stated that when the board studied the issue in 2012, data demonstrated that "it was not possible to create a trustee area with a majority of Hispanic citizen voting age population in the District."

In a settlement agreement in 2019, the attorneys for the district and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project agreed to a timeline for changing Lakeside's board elections.

The district held its second agreed-to public hearing on its elections at its June 15 board meeting. It agreed to release a draft of trustee map options on or before July 31. A second public hearing on the maps will be held on or before Aug. 31, and the final draft will be presented on or before Oct. 31.

"We’re happy the school district is making this change and bringing its elections into compliance with the Voting Rights Act," said Shenkman.

It was 2010 that marked the first census to be held after the California Voting Rights Act passed in 2002, which made it easier for voters to challenge governing boards on the basis of "racially polarized voting." Previously, the only school boards to have trustee areas were the Kern County Board of Education and Kern Community College District.

"At-large elections allow a bare majority of voters to control, every seat, not just the seats in a particular district or a proportional majority of seats," Shenkman's letter states.

It gives as an example the U.S. House of Representatives: If it were an at-large body, everyone in the country would vote 435 times for 435 people in a nationwide election.

Priscilla Quinn, assistant superintendent of finance for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, said that Lakeside Union is far from alone in switching its boards from at-large positions to area positions after the 2020 census. She said the other districts that are in the process are small and medium districts, though she said the others are not doing it because of litigation.

Rosedale Union School District began the process last year. Some of its trustees are in geographically specific positions already, and some are in at-large positions that will transition during the next election in 2022.