Starting in 2022, the South Pasadena school board will change to district-based elections to fill its five seats, rather than the current at-large system — a move that Superintendent Geoff Yantz acknowledged was made under pressure of legal action.
The board approved the move by a 5-0 vote at its Jan. 14 meeting.
Currently, the school district operates under at-large elections that enable voters to have five votes for members of the board.
The pressure came as a result of a demand letter from the Malibu-based law firm Shenkman & Hughes, a letter that alleged the district was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The firm has pursued that legal avenue with success in other cities as well, arguing the at-large process denies Latino and African-American voters equal political participation.
The school board’s resolution is meant to avoid further legal issues, with the district required to pay $30,000 in attorney fees to the firm, according to Yantz.
Yantz said at the meeting the resolution was a “significant vote” and that the board had carefully discussed its potential impact and the need to pursue it.
“It was an order to avoid litigation, which is very costly and you lose,” Yantz told the Review this week. “No one has prevailed, and those who have tried to fight it — as an example, the city of Santa Monica — have lost millions and millions in trying to fight it.”
Yantz noted the City of South Pasadena moved to district elections for the City Council two years ago.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman said that his demand letters, which have affected a number of school districts across California, will help increase the number of Latino and African-Americans represented on school boards and city councils.
“We’re pleased that they did it,” Shenkman told the Review, referring to the South Pas school board. “I certainly would have liked to see them do it a while ago, but once we prompted them a little bit, they acted pretty reasonably and we’re glad to see them moving their elections into the 21st century.”
Shenkman explained that participation in local government has a strong effect on quality of city life, so the district-based elections will help engage community diversity.
“It’s important that those governing boards … reflect not only the diversity of the community but also that every neighborhood in every city is represented and has a voice, feels like they have a voice, so that they don’t feel like they’re locked out of the groups that are having the most impact on their lives.”
Using 2020 Census data, there will be five districts created within South Pasadena to correspond to the five seats of the school board, Yantz said.
“Each board member will represent one of those districts and then based on where you reside, as a voter, then you will vote on the district,” said Yantz.
Board Clerk Ruby Kalra said that while district elections is the direction that many school districts and city councils are going, she felt the community had so far been well represented on the board. However, she said the district elections for South Pasadena may not change much with the city’s small size.
“The intent is, of course, good, but districts that are small like ours that may or may not affect the outcome, but at this point we don’t really have much choice other than to go forward with districting,” said Kalra.
Board Member Jon Primuth said the board had a “lot of fighting words” when the issue first arose “because we don’t want to give up our small town characters that quickly.”
“We believe our town is unique, we believe our town is inclusive, we believe our town values diversity and any kind of settlement that’s going to create division or divide us into small groups to achieve a certain goal is problematic. However, the city went through this and the city had a lot of fighting words and at the end of the day they had to subdistrict just like we are.”
Primuth said he agreed with what South Pas council members said about their own process in 2017, that the CVRA has troublesome issues.
“The CVRA really is flawed because it sets up a losing situation for us even though I don’t think there’s any significant problem with how our voters vote,” said Primuth.
However, he admitted there was social and public policy in favor of the measure, so he was “reluctantly in favor” of it.
“It saves the district money, it saves us headaches, [but] it does shrink our democracy in our view, because everyone goes from voting for five different positions on the school board to one over four years.”
Board Member Zahir Robb said the district elections will make the process of gaining candidates for school board “more complex.”
“I think it’ll just really require people to think about their role in city government and to make sure they continue to speak up and serve as needed because we’ll need it,” said Robb.
“We’ll have to find five people from five distinct parts of the city in a city of three square miles, which will be complicated, but hopefully we’ll find those people to really take those strides.”