Under threat of a pending lawsuit, the Kern High School District Board of Trustees announced Monday that it would begin the process of redrawing voting districts ahead of an upcoming election to provide more equity on the board to Latino communities.
The decision comes amid a lawsuit the Dolores Huerta Foundation had planned to file against the district accusing it of gerrymandering districts to exclude Latino representation.
“They rolled over. This is astonishing,” Gerald Cantu, education policy director with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, said Monday night upon hearing the decision. “They apparently made the decision that it’s better to redraw the lines and not waste any taxpayer money defending themselves on what is indefensible, which is to say that the district lines are gerrymandered.”
Legal counsel representing the Dolores Huerta Foundation met with KHSD’s general counsel Monday, Cantu said — something trustees denied — but they didn’t expect such a decision to be made preemptively. Dolores Huerta Foundation officials have been examining the district trustee lines for at least three years and were expecting to wage a long and expensive legal battle.
"I don't see a reason to waste $1 million of taxpayer money on a lawsuit," Trustee Bryan Batey said, adding that he didn't "need a judge to tell me what to do."
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 Latino, Jeff Flores. All of them are Republicans.
“I’m very thankful for their decision. Latinos and people of color can now have representation on the KHSD board,” Huerta said during a phone interview Monday evening. Beliefs held and comments made by some trustees, past and present, are incongruent with the communities they represent, Huerta said. Former Trustee Chad Vegas, for example, said it would violate his “religious conscience” to create transgender bathrooms.
“You saw this stuff coming down the pike and realized this school board is really out of touch,” Huerta said. “Things are not going the way they should.”
The decision comes fewer than two weeks after Kern County lost a lawsuit to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which alleged the Kern County Board of Supervisors voting districts were drawn illegally in 2011 and in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
“In light of the ruling in Luna vs The County of Kern, the board of trustees voted to adopt a timeline to review and evaluate adjusting two majority Latino voting districts as well as overall population in five trustee areas,” Trustee President Phillip Peters said Monday.
Peters also said the board was making the effort “proactively in order to avoid any and all potential lawsuits that would take money away from education.” He didn’t mention the pending suit to be filed by the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
Huerta described some of the lines as looking like “a rainbow,” and drawn in a way to allow all trustees to live within a few blocks of one another while representing disparate parts of the district.
The redrawing of district lines could threaten Trustee Mike Williams, whose district runs from southwest Bakersfield through Oildale and into east Bakersfield. Huerta called the district "one of the most ridiculous lines drawn."
The decision could also threaten Trustee Joey O’Connell, whose district sprawls from the city limits of Wasco southwest into Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch. Lamont residents have been calling for a high school to be built in their community, but district trustees have said that such an endeavor is not immediately possible.
Those residents could now oust O’Connell — who’s up for re-election in 2020 — to get greater board representation, Huerta said.
O'Connell said after the meeting that he's given re-election "no thought whatsoever," and that his priority is instead doing what's best for the district. Likewise, Williams — who's up for re-election in November — said that he has "no idea" which trustee areas would be impacted by redistricting and was unsure how quickly the process would move.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to elect representatives who are more responsive to their districts,” Huerta said, referring to the recent court decision and board decision to redraw lines as ones that could redistribute power to Latino voters. Her organization will play an active role in proposing new boundary lines to the district, she said.
"It all comes down to organizing and making them understand that the Latino community does have, not only a voice, but some political power," Huerta said.
District officials said they would post more information on the KHSD website late this week announcing the next steps, including when public forums would take place.