In December of last year, a petition was submitted to the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) asking their Committee on School District Organization to establish District-based elections for seats on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board. In February, by a vote of the city council, the City of Santa Monica joined the school district in opposing the petition, with an opening for the city to join litigation against the attempted change.

The petition itself, the work of Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, activists Tricia Crane and Jennifer deNicola, and at one time by Santa Monica Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, alleges the following:

  • “At-large elections are well known to dilute the vote of any minority population, while trustee-area elections ensure representation of all communities”
  • That five of the current seven-member SMMUSD Board “reside in just one corner of Santa Monica – the wealthiest neighborhood,” and alleges that this area has been historically over-represented on the Board …
  • … while “other neighborhoods, such as the Latino- and African American-concentrated Pico Neighborhood, Mid-City and Malibu have enjoyed almost no representation at all”
  • That the State Legislature has officially stated that at-large elections are by their nature more expensive that district-based elections, “further disadvantaging candidates from the less-wealthy neighborhoods of Santa Monica”
  • That, “pursuant to Senate Bill 442, the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization is empowered to establish trustee-areas for SMMUSD’s elections”

Interestingly, the petitioners have even drawn up proposed boundaries for SMMUSD’s would-be seven districts, and two of them are non-contiguous. The First District would represent the most northern and western parts of Malibu but also oddly Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood; while the proposed Third District would represent the closer eastern portion of Malibu and a higher-income section of Santa Monica in the North-of-Montana and “Wilmont” neighborhoods.
In response, the group Community for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) sent a letter to SMMUSD, telling them they, “Have a legal and moral responsibility to oppose the Petition.”

CEPS Co-Chairs Ted Winterer and Nicole Faries, in the jointly-signed letter, go on to say, “As a matter of public policy, CEPS supports SMMUSD’s at-large elections because they encourage members of the Board of Education to approach issues from a community-wide perspective.” They continue, “SMMUSD’s at-large elections have successfully ensured board and inclusive representation on the Board of Education including for Santa Monica’s Latino and Black Communities.” They also argue that at-large elections for school board provide each voter with seven votes in a four-year election cycle versus a single vote every four years if district-based elections were imposed.

Their legal arguments against the petition, which they explain more thoroughly in a 58-page Memorandum to the District, are as follows:

  1. The petition asks the LACOE committee to violate the State Constitution, which stipulates that Charter Cities have a right to add how they elect their local school boards into their city charter, and cite a 2008 case (Hernandez v. County of Los Angeles) that states, “A city charter is the people’s document; any changes to a city charter require a democratic vote of the people”
  2. That the petition fails to provide any facts of evidence that SMMUSD’s at-large elections are not sufficient in any way, and without any proof that they violate the California Voting Rights Act, they have no case
  3. That the petition makes fraudulent and baseless claims about Malibu or Black or Latino representation on the Board of Education

When asked about the fact that the petitioners also proposed specific district boundaries, Mr. Winterer, a former Santa Monica City councilmember, responded, “The districts proposed by the petitioners seem to me to be gerrymandering at its most cynical, deliberately drawn to give more influence to the separatists in Malibu who propose to form their own school district in a deal which leaves the kids in Santa Monica underfunded.” He continued, “The proposal also consolidates as many incumbent school board members as possible into one district to preclude all of them from being re-elected, since a majority of the school board incumbents, while conceptually in favor of the formation of two separate districts, have resisted the inequitable terms proposed by Malibu.”

Senate Bill 442, referred to above, basically authorized county committees – in this case, LACOE – to establish district-based elections for school districts governed by city charters.

The City of Santa Monica and SMMUSD have now filed a lawsuit to halt the implementation of SB 442. The litigants argue SB 442 is unconstitutional in that it goes against the California State Constitution, which allows for charter cities self-determination for how to run school district elections – essentially the first legal argument Winterer and Faries make on behalf of CEPS listed earlier.

In response to the city and school district’s concerns, State Senator Ben Allen, who previously served as a SMMUSD Board member, introduced Senate Bill 1381, which is intended to remove SB 442’s authority to bypass city charters in establishing district-based school board elections.

Allen’s office told me that the bill was to be given a committee hearing on SB 1381 yesterday, April 20, but it did not take place. In fact, according to Allen’s Chief of Staff Nicole Winger, “We will not be moving forward with it in this legislative session.”

Disclaimer: Ted Winterer and Senator Ben Allen were early supporters of Westside Voice

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