Pleasanton Unified School District is slowing down plans to switch school board elections from at-large to by-area after the Board of Trustees asked for more time to engage with community members and to amend language in a resolution originally headed for formal adoption at its regular meeting on Thursday.
By-trustee-area elections, where candidates are elected by voters in geographic subdistricts, are considered legally immune from challenge under the California Voting Rights Act. Currently PUSD trustees are elected by all voters throughout the district, but the CVRA prohibits "at-large" elections in certain circumstances, which is one reason district officials said they have recently considered the change.
Spokesman Patrick Gannon told the Weekly that the district is "trying to be proactive" by transitioning to area-based elections, and said no lawsuits have been threatened or filed against PUSD about the matter.
"It was brought forward by the board to help support diversity on the governance team, and yes, addressing it before it becomes a legal matter," Gannon said. "We'd risk a lawsuit and being responsible for paying legal fees. Which is likely given this has happened in surrounding districts."
Hundreds of California public school districts and other local agencies have transitioned from at-large to by-area elections over the past few years, including Dublin Unified and San Ramon Valley Unified.
Though pulled at the request of several board members for further amendment, the resolution brought to the board at their Sept. 9 meeting stated the district's intention to start the process to transition from at-large to by-trustee area elections, including a general outline of the development process for the trustee area boundary map.
Pre-map hearings will take place beginning next month, according to staff, and starting in the November 2022 general election, the map would be used in PUSD trustee elections. On Thursday, Board President Joan Laursen asked if the pre-map hearings will be part of regular board meetings or held separately.
"We feel that both for public engagement and also time, that the best way forward is to take half an hour, an hour … at every single board meeting from now until December," assistant superintendent of business services Ahmad Sheikholeslami said, adding "we've mapped it out that the next meeting on the 23rd will be a good pre-map meeting discussion about criteria, getting input."
PUSD hopes to receive data from the U.S. census by Sept. 14 "so we'll be able to start providing more pre-map meeting information, taking feedback from the board and community," and look at map options during subsequent meetings over the next few months. The district is also building a website with information about the mapping and transition process, and using other communication channels to "ramp up that piece of the communication" with the community.
Laursen then asked if there was a timeline to meet in order to qualify the changes for the general election next year and Sheikholeslami replied, "Our goal is to get to a map by December."
Sheikholeslami added, "I believe that meeting that timeline will give us plenty of opportunity to let the elections office know about the change."
Attorney William Tunick, who has been contracted by the district for assistance on the mapping and transition process, explained that county election offices usually "want the information (in) March or April before the election, so there's clearly enough time for that."
"The schedule that we've anticipated and that's reflected in the resolution, would be to keep the district closer to the 90-day timeline that's mentioned in the statute, and that's why that timeline has you making adoption at your December meeting," Tunick said.
Trustee Mary Jo Carreon said the timeline gave her concern: "This is talking in December, and I know it's going to be really hard to engage community members around Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday, so I feel like we need to extend that a little bit more."
Trustee Kelly Mokashi concurred, and said she thinks the process "needs to be community-driven with trustee and district support because that's where we're going to get the buy-in for this process."
"I want to be really clear, I really do believe in this and I advocate for it, I think it's important that we consider equity and I think there's a good reason why this is being brought up," Mokashi said. "But I am very concerned about the timing of it and would concur if the deadline isn't until March for the county … that we maximize that time to make sure we get the appropriate engagement for the community."
The board also considered potential "negative side effects of board members becoming more attached to their actual district instead of looking at the whole good of their entire district," and Mokashi asked to include language in the resolution essentially declaring that "even though we're elected by an area, our role is for the good of all the students."
Trustee Steve Maher said some parents have told him "if you start dividing up the community then no longer will it be the Pleasanton school community."
"I just need to know more, I want to include parents more," Maher said. "I would really like to include them on what they think, do they think this is a good idea. Right now you're asking us to move forward when I don't know what most of the people think."