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Creating Geographic Districts Could Boost Latino School Board Representation in California

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Do your local school board members reflect the student demographics of the district they serve? In Pasadena, California, and in many districts across the country with Latino student majorities, the answer is no. According to the California Department of Education, about 59% of the Pasadena Unified School District’s 19,802 students are Latino. But only one of the seven school board members elected is Latino.

On June 5, voters will decide whether to switch from an at-large system to creating designated geographic voting districts that could increase the influence of minority voters in determining the composition of the board. In Pasadena, the mayor, the NAACP chapter, and leaders from the Latino and Armenian communities support creating districts, reports The Pasadena Sun. Pasadena Unified has posted maps and other documents related to the districting task force online.

“There will be greater opportunities all around for representation,” said Pasadena Youth Center executive director Stella Murga, as reported by Pasadena Weekly. “I think it would encourage more minorities to run and vote.”

On the other side, critics say districts could cause infighting and create racial tensions.

But supporters believe that if voting districts are coincide with the neighborhoods where the majorities of the populations are Latino, those voters are more likely to elect a Latino candidate. In the existing at-large system, the larger pool of voters overall may weaken the ability of Latino voters to select their preferred candidate.

The Pasadena vote comes as other local school boards in California recently have been challenged by voting rights lawsuits that say at-large elections don’t give fair representation to minority voters. The 2002  California Voting Rights Act and new 2010 Census data spurred many of these suits.

As a result, many  districts voluntarily changed their systems, often fearing the cost of a legal battle. According to California Watch, since 2009, 70 school boards have applied to the state board of education to switch to districts. They can either apply to the state to change over, or put it to a vote.

As education reporters, it’s important to take a look at the demographics of your local school districts. Does the school board reflect the population of the students enrolled? Have minority candidates run for office but lost every time?

I covered a voting rights lawsuit against the Irving Independent School District in Texas. The district currently has no Latino school board members, but more than 70% of the students are Latino. I began reporting on the issue about six years ago–before the lawsuit was filed–when it became apparent that Latino candidates were losing every time they ran.

Initially, the Texas lawsuit failed because a federal judge concluded that districts could not be drawn where the majority of voters were Latino because there were so many non-citizen immigrants residing in those same neighborhoods. But because the 2010 Census showed growing numbers of Latinos, the board approved moving forward with creating single-member geographic districts in January.

Even with voting districts, the combination of low voter turnout by Latinos and a high number of immigrant parents who can’t vote are still challenges to electing a diverse board.

I share my reporting experience because the story stretched out over a six-year period. Even if a lawsuit has not yet been filed and a new voting system isn’t being considered, it’s worth reporting if minorities are raising concerns about a lack of diversity among school board members in your community.