School districts in San Diego County are eyeing legal threats across the state as cautionary tales that could prompt big changes in the way school boards are elected, spurring them to pick leaders from specific areas rather than the district as a whole.

The threats have already generated buzz at the San Diego County Office of Education, which hosted a meeting in April with school district officials from across the region to talk about whether local school systems could be vulnerable to similar, potentially costly suits.

A case last year in Madera, a small city northwest of Fresno, argued that Latino voters were drowned out and disadvantaged by citywide elections there, which put all candidates up before all voters. Such elections can put governments in hot water under the California Voting Rights Act if challengers can prove that there are clear racial patterns in voting that drown out distinct groups.

Advocates say that if more school boards follow Madera and change their ways, they have a better chance of becoming as racially diverse as the cities they cover.

“You’re going to see the face of school boards literally changed,” said Robert Rubin, an attorney whose San Francisco firm brought the case.

Like most California school systems, all school districts in San Diego County elect their school boards at large. That means that all voters cast ballots for all candidates. For instance, if Grossmont schools had two spots open on the school board, voters would pick the candidates they wanted and the two candidates who got the most votes would win the seats, no matter where in the district they lived.

The alternative is breaking up a city or school district into smaller regions that each elect their own representative, known as district elections. When San Diegans vote for City Council, they only vote for candidates who face off to represent their part of the city. The result is that Latino neighborhoods tend to elect a Latino representative, gay neighborhoods often choose a gay representative, and so on.

“It puts more control in the hands of the community,” said former city attorney Mike Aguirre, who once sued the city to make the change and diversify the council.

San Diego Unified has a third, hybrid method. It elects its school board the way that San Diego once elected its council members: Though school board members are elected to represent a specific area of town and compete in regional primaries, they are ultimately voted on by the whole city.

But when the city of San Diego switched, the school district didn’t. The idea of changing the election system fell flat again when attorney John Stump brought it to the City Council two years ago, arguing that it would diversify the school board.

Some local school boards don’t closely mirror the people they represent, at least in ethnicity. For instance, all members of the Grossmont school board are white, though roughly one third of adults in the Grossmont area are Latino, black, Asian or other racial minorities. Four years ago, a Latino advocacy group faulted school districts from Escondido to Chula Vista for having too few Latinos on their boards.

The question is whether their election systems are to blame — and whether an attorney could convincingly make that argument.

“It’s definitely something we’re going to deal with,” said Steve Lilly, president of the Vista school board.

Critics say carving up elections by area could lead to balkanized boards that focus too narrowly on their own pet issues. “You’re not going to know every part of the school district unless you’re forced to,” said Sue Braun, a former San Diego Unified trustee. “We’re not just voting on issues in our area.”

But balkanization is still a problem now, said John de Beck, a longtime San Diego Unified school board member who believes that at-large elections have forced candidates to rely on unions or business groups for backing. A San Diego Unified school board candidate has to woo far more voters than a City Council contender because of the sheer size of the school district.

“The smaller the district, the closer to the people,” de Beck said. “And that’s a good thing.”

With the U.S. Census in the works, this is already an opportune time for school systems to weigh whether elections should be redone. San Diego Unified, for instance, is waiting on the new results to decide whether it needs to redraw the areas that each of its school board members represent.

Other school districts just want to avoid lawsuits from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, which has sent dozens of demand letters to school districts elsewhere in the state. Though county school officials said they knew of no letters or lawsuits threatened here, the price tag of a legal claim can be so alarming that school districts are eager to tackle the issue before it erupts.

Madera Unified, for instance, is disputing a bill from the suing attorneys that was originally set at $1.2 million. Doug Johnson, president of a demographics company that is advising Southern California school districts about their legal risks, said that while school systems around Bakersfield, Modesto and Fresno have rushed to switch their election systems, many are simply caving to avoid the costs.

“I’m concerned about ambulance chasers coming in and finding someone who feels misrepresented — especially in this downturned economy,” said Priscilla Schreiber, who sits on the Grossmont board.

Electing a school board at large does not inherently violate the California Voting Rights Act. Poway schools spokesman Sharon Raffer said the suburban system, which has an entirely white school board, doesn’t believe it runs afoul of the law because racial minorities in Poway aren’t grouped in specific areas that would vote differently if they had their own elections.

But attorney Marguerite Leoni, who led the San Diego County Office of Education forum, warned school officials in a slideshow presentation that “the language is very unclear” under the California law that led to the Madera case — and so are the defenses against it. Legal experts on both sides say the only guaranteed safe harbor is to simply elect candidates from geographic areas.

School districts can alter their election rules by applying to the county school board, which decides whether to grant their request. Such changes could be a little more difficult for San Diego Unified, because its election rules are in the San Diego city charter. That means that voters would likely have to approve the switch, Deputy City Attorney Sharon Spivak said.

San Diego Unified hired an outside company seven years ago to study whether racial voting blocs were being drowned out in violation of the California Voting Rights Act; it found no evidence of that. And years ago, Sweetwater and Chula Vista schools weighed whether to start electing board members based on geographic areas of the districts, an idea that ultimately fizzled.

But that same idea could start catching on as the threat of lawsuits loom. “That was 2003. This is now,” said Mark Bresee, general counsel for San Diego Unified. “So we’re looking at this again.”

(Disclosure: Doug Johnson has partnered on a reporting project with voiceofsandiego.org in his position with the Rose Institute.)

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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