"In this case, the systemic barrier is the at-large voting and how much it costs to campaign throughout the whole district," Laursen said.
If the district follows through, board members would represent one of five areas within the district's enrollment boundaries. Trustees would be required to live in the area they represent, and voters would elect only the member from their trustee area rather than choosing from a pool of all candidates running at-large.
The Board of Trustees pondered the transition process during a team workshop on Thursday, where attorney William Tunick explained that by-trustee-area elections have legal immunity under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which prohibits at-large elections in some cases.
Racially polarized voting — which measures outcomes of voting patterns and whether any identified patterns based on race or ethnicity are identified — is one of the factors where Tunick said "at-large elections may be prohibited by the CVRA" and that "one way to immunize from that liability is to switch to by-trustee area elections."
"You can actually change the results of the elections and allow a minority group to influence or to have their preferences expressed in the results of an election that are not happening with an election at-large," Tunick said.
Most public school districts in California still hold at-large trustee elections but many others, as well as other local agencies, have transitioned to area-based elections to avoid the expense of CVRA-related litigation, according to Tunick.
There is no direct requirement for the transition based on 2020 U.S. Census data, but population and ethnicity information would be used for drawing areas.
According to Tunick, it's important "that the trustee areas are equal in population, which means roughly within 10% of the least and most populous trustee area," though he added it's "usually not an issue." Another consideration for transitioning to by-trustee elections is the Federal Voting Rights Act, which Tunick said, "If you can't draw a trustee area where a minority group is a majority, federal law essentially requires that."
New boundaries could be geographically or demographically determined, but Tunick cautioned that "we shouldn't be using the districting process to remove somebody from the board" nor should the process "be used to draw a map that prevents someone from running."
The process would consist of three different phases: pre-map, map development and adoption, and implementation. Public hearings would be held during the first two phases, followed by securing final approval from Alameda County officials.
Laursen explained her "love-hate relationship with by-trustee areas" and how "unless you're careful about how you design the maps, you can end up with people voting only for things that are going to help the school that's in their area, for example."
A district-based election "also lowers the bar for recalls," Laursen said. "Someone of a different viewpoint might see that as a good thing, but I actually see that as a negative."
"When the bar is lowered because the number of signatures required for a recall in a by-trustee area is small," Laursen said, putting board members "at risk for the community members within your trustee area deciding to recall you."
On the flipside, Laursen said by-trustee elections have their advantages, particularly for newer members of the community.
"For a newcomer to beat an incumbent in this town, it takes about $10,000 and that's a pretty high bar," Laursen added. "It's also hard to maintain engagement with your constituents when you have 42,000 of them versus a smaller area."
If a trustee area has a vacant seat and no declared candidates, the board would be responsible for appointing a representative from that district.
Should PUSD move forward with the transition process, a demographer would be contracted along with seeking legal support, which would cost an estimated $40,000 to $45,000. Staff also said the district could be ready for the general election in November 2022, when the seats currently filled by Laursen and Mark Miller will be open to challengers.
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