According to a 2010 report by the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State University, “in two-thirds of school districts there is no Latino representation” and only about 15% of school board members in California are Latino. The report goes on to identify barriers to running and being elected to school board. These include low voter turnout, high number of ineligible voting residents, and the cost of running for school board. Yet, 20% of the elected officials surveyed in the report indicate having to compete in at-large districts as a major barrier to increasing the number of Latinxs on school boards.
Currently, districts either hold at-large or district-based elections. “At-large” means that voters of an entire jurisdiction elect members to their school board. With “trustee-area” elections, each trustee must reside within the designated trustee area boundary and is elected only by the voters in that area.
Historically, civil rights activists have held that at-large elections dilute the votes of underrepresented minority groups. This then makes it harder for minority groups, such as Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans, to run for and be elected into political office. In 2002, Governor Davis signed into law the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which makes it easier to challenge at-large voting practices. Many saw CVRA as a victory, an opportunity to create greater equity and representation on school boards and city councils.
In recent years, as a result of CVRA many California school districts have changed the way they elect school board members. Some are doing so voluntarily, while others are being legally challenged to change. Since 2002, more than 140 California school districts have switched from at-large to trustee-area elections.
This year, my local Bay Area school district, West Contra Costa Unified, received a notice from an attorney asserting that our at-large system violated the CVRA. Districts across the state have received this letter. Most are moving to “trustee area” elections. I’m excited by the prospect of this change.
Nearly four years ago, I ran for school board. Our area includes six cities and several unincorporated areas with about 40,000 voters. Although our district has over 51% Latino students, at the time we did not have a single Latinx member of the school board. Running for office in such a large district meant I faced tough challenges. As a first-time candidate, I had to raise a lot of money for outreach efforts and materials to gain name recognition. Although I received over 10,000 votes, I was about 1,500 votes short of winning.
I know that if we had trustee-area elections, it would have been a completely different race. We would have ended up with greater diversity on the school board. And, not just racial/ethnic diversity but also geographic representation. Having trustee-area elections breaks large districts into local subdivisions. Local leaders may find running in smaller areas to be more manageable and winnable. I know many people tell me that they don’t run for school board in our district because it seems geographically overwhelming. There is too much money to have to raise.
While I’m certain that my local school district will adopt trustee-area elections in the near future, I’m still haunted by the fact that only 15% of school board members are Latinx. This statistic has changed little over the decades.
Breaking up at-large districts is one tool to increase minority representation on school boards. This means, though, that we need to encourage more Latinx parents, students, teachers, and leaders to run for school board. There are training programs for Latinas such as HOPE, and for women, there is Emerge.
The only way we can move the needle on the 15% statistic is if we take a leap of faith and run for office. The ball’s in our court.
Raquel F. Donoso
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