In a school board election that reflects the changing demographics of a Bay Area district, three Latinas are poised to make up the majority for the first time in the district’s history.
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Voters elected two Latinas to the West Contra Costa Unified School Board, where they will join incumbent Valerie Cuevas, the first Latina elected to the board four years ago and current board president who was re-elected. Both newly elected women have taught in the district, which includes Richmond and surrounding communities.
All three will now join two incumbents to carry out the tough task of making cuts in district programs and staff to help pay for salary increases for teachers and other employees in a region with soaring housing costs.
Although a large percentage of Richmond residents has historically been African-Americans, the city’s demographics have changed over the decades, along with neighboring communities that comprise the school district, such as San Pablo, which is largely Latino. The ascendance of a Latina majority reflects these dramatic demographic changes. In 1990, 44 percent of Richmond residents were African-American and 15 percent were Latino. By 2017, 18 percent were African-American and 48 percent were Latino.
The majority (54 percent) of the 31,600 students who attend district and charter schools in West Contra Costa are Latino. Sixteen percent are African-American, while 10 percent each are white and Asian.
Incumbents Madeline Kronenberg and Elizabeth Block lost their re-election bids in the district race among 11 candidates. Both are white. Voters instead elected district kindergarten teacher Stephanie Hernandez-Jarvis and retired district teacher Consuelo Lara, based on final results from the Nov. 6 election released Monday.
The elections office expects to certify the results by Thursday.
Lara said even though there will be three Latinas on the board “the three of us could not be more different,” referring to their “experience and political views.”
However, she said it was “great” that there would be a Latina majority, which she speculated was the result of some voters with similar backgrounds wanting to “speak up and participate and get a place at the table, which is admirable for any citizen, actually.”
Lara said the newly elected board members would find “common ground when it comes to the needs of the students.”
Cuevas echoed these sentiments, noting that she is also the first LGBTQ board president.
“Latinas are not monolithic in any way at all,” she said. “You have me as a Generation Xer in between a Baby Boomer and a Millennial. You’re definitely going to see some areas where we’re very much aligned and some areas where we aren’t, as a result of that.”
But she said the new majority would provide “more Latina role models on our school board” for the district’s one in two Latino students, as well as for all students. It will be most important, she said, for the entire school board to work together to address issues that are key to all students, including providing high-quality instruction and developing inclusive, positive school cultures.
Over 12 years, the district has seen its Latino population increase from 28 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. The percentage of whites dropped from 29 to 23 percent and African-Americans dwindled from 21 to 13 percent, falling below the Asian population, which held steady at 19 percent.
The shift in the board’s demographics comes at a time when the district is preparing to transition to new voting districts in two years in response to a lawsuit by some district residents and concerned voters that alleged “at large elections” were “racially polarized” because they gave unfair advantages to whites in violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
In 2020, all five seats will be open based on new voting district maps, expected to include one district that is majority Latino and one that is majority African-American.
When elections are held in 2020, voters will choose one candidate from their voting districts instead of selecting candidates from the entire school district.
The board has chosen a voter district map that is drawn into five districts, including one that is majority Latino and one that is majority African-American. The maps are pending since they are part of the unsettled lawsuit in state Superior Court in Contra Costa County. Other districts have also faced similar lawsuits, but have reached settlements on voter districts.
Meanwhile the new board members will serve for two years. Hernandez-Jarvis who came to California with her family from Mexico as a young girl, says she brings a new voice to the board as an immigrant who was an English learner as a child, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter and a dual immersion teacher.
Her campaign was backed financially by an independent expenditure committee funded by GO Public Advocates, a political advocacy group that includes supporters of both district and charter schools, as well as by the Education Matters Political Action Committee, an independent expenditure committee funded by Steve and Susan Chamberlin.
She told EdSource that she wanted to make connections with students and community members whose backgrounds were similar to hers.
“I want to make policies that put people of color at the forefront,” she said, adding that she believes the fact that three Latinas were elected is significant. “To me, that seems really special. I think it’s a step forward and I think it represents people in the community.”
She planned to resign from her position as a teacher late Tuesday afternoon, a required step so that she could join the board. Trustees receive modest monthly stipends of $892.
The United Teachers of Richmond union did not endorse Hernandez-Jarvis, but union President Demetrio Gonzalez said he looks forward to working with her. As a union member she grew during the campaign to understand district issues, he said. The union endorsed Cuevas and Lara.
He said it was “very exciting” to have a more diverse board, which “is going to resemble our community.”
The board members also include incumbents Mister Phillips, who is African-American, and Tom Panas, who is white and contributed heavily to the GO Public Advocates independent expenditure committee, which supported Hernandez-Jarvis, Cuevas and Block.
Along with Kronenberg, Lara said she plans to create a program to prepare district students who want to go to college to become teachers. The hope is they would return to the district to teach.
Kronenberg said she didn’t regret recruiting Consuelo to run for office, even if it cost her a seat on the board, where she has served 12 years.
The board recognized Kronenberg and Block for their years of service on Nov. 14. The pair later participated in a Wednesday special budget study session, since new board members won’t be sworn in until Wednesday.
In June, the board unanimously agreed to give teachers pay raises of 17 percent through 2020, including a 5 percent raise that began last March, with the understanding that it would require budget cuts in other areas. The new board expects to vote Dec. 12 on $12 million in cuts to be made next year.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.
EdSource receives funding from several foundations, including the Chamberlin Family Foundation. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.