Next week, Pasadena Unified voters will elect school board members by trustee areas for the first time, switching from at-large elections in which all candidates compete districtwide. Education Week reports that dozens of California school districts have switched to trustee areas to encourage racial and ethnic diversity on their boards and avoid being sued under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The law outlaws at-large elections that thwart minority voters from electing candidates of their choice.
The EdWeek piece quotes Peter Fagan, a partner in the Los Angeles-based law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, who says, “While not all school districts are rushing to shift, in today’s budget climate very few have the desire to fight these lawsuits. The only safe harbor for districts is to shift to trustee-area elections, whether or not it helps elect minority representation, which is not always the case.” In the case of Pasadena Unified, 10 candidates – three white, three black, and four Latino – are competing for four open seats on a school board that has been predominantly white.
Under the law, a school district can ask voters to switch to elections by districts or it can seek permission from the State Board of Education. According to EdWeek, 79 districts have received a State Board waiver since 2005, including 59 in the past year. The State Board has approved all requests.
California’s voting rights act is unique, and so other states must turn to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the rights of minority voters. But as Wednesday’s hearing indicated, conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court appear eager to overturn critical sections of that law.