I have election on the brain this week.
No, not just because the costly statewide recall attempt failed by an embarrassing margin at the ballot box Tuesday.
The Pleasanton Unified School District has tapped the brakes to slow down its consideration of an in-house proposal to shift Board of Trustees elections from at-large to area-based.
Now, I'm going to commit what some might consider a cardinal sin in opinion-writing (though a tact that would help social discourse and progress if taken more often): I don't love this idea for PUSD, but I don't hate it either.
The debate -- and how authentic it is -- does very much intrigue me, however.
You may remember this issue taking prominence in the Tri-Valley amid a wave of legal challenges up and down the I-680 corridor a couple of years ago to spur conversion to district-based elections for local agencies, most of which came in the form of threat letters on behalf of the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative.
The argument via the California Voting Rights Act, which is all but futile to fight based on past court rulings, is that at-large elections can in some cases impair the ability of voters in protected classes (race, religion or language minority populations) to influence the outcome of an election. You may be more familiar with the term "racially polarized voting."
Area-based elections, because of how neighborhoods and communities can be clustered, create more fair contests is the conclusion.
Interestingly to me at the time, Pleasanton Unified -- and the Pleasanton City Council -- were among the few Tri-Valley agencies unchallenged back in 2018 and 2019.
Then this summer, the issue was introduced at PUSD seemingly out of the blue. And unlike nearby jurisdictions, this push was brought by the board itself without any public challenge as the impetus.
It seemed like full steam ahead, a forgone conclusion, for PUSD until the board agreed on Sept. 9 to slow the process to allow time for more community input before adopting the resolution and to avoid making final boundary decisions during the winter holidays.
In PUSD's case, the change would mean that instead of a resident voting on two trustees district-wide one year and then all other three seats two years later, that resident would vote only for the single trustee in their geographic sub-area every four years.
Board President Joan Laursen was the trustee who first asked that the discussion come before the board, so I emailed her this week to talk about what inspired the timing of her unexpected request.
"Overall, we have seen a shift to by-trustee area elections in cities and school districts across the state and wanted to be proactive, rather than reactive, in our conversation and consideration of this change," Laursen told me, in part.
She said the fact she and Trustee Mark Miller aren't running for re-election in 2022 would help make the map-drawing simpler. Plus, the district is already working with a demographer on data for school boundary changes, and the new census data makes for great timing too.
"I believe that as our community demographics are changing, our representation should change to reflect that," Laursen added. "By-trustee area elections will lower the barrier to participate -- both in campaign financing terms and voter outreach, because you have a smaller campaign area -- and should help to increase our diversity."
I wonder if the fact PUSD has no trustees of color for the first time in at least 12 years, surprising for a city as diverse as Pleasanton, is playing a role in the timing too. Our local elected bodies are best when fairly reflective of the communities they represent.
What I see as missing from Laursen's comments, and PUSD's public debate thus far, is convincing evidence that the neighborhood layout of Pleasanton, geographically, demonstrates that defined protected classes are disadvantaged in election competition based on where they live compared to other residents.
Area-based elections make more sense to me for agencies with boundaries that span multiple cities (like Alameda County supervisors) or for cities with large populations of 500,000 to 1 million or more where neighborhood designs have segregated minority groups.
I'm unsure how productive it would be toward achieving those diversity goals to subdivide a city as relatively small-to-moderate as Pleasanton.
Change for change's sake can be good sometimes. Change to achieve diversity, on the other hand, is vital. But change in the name of diversity that is not backed by appropriate evidence and perspective is severely at risk of failing to accomplish those important goals, and therefore comes off as an inauthentic exercise.
I don't necessarily espouse the argument that such an election switch will automatically create more social division in a community. We do that well enough on our own these days, with how many of us tend to interact on an individual level (e.g., Town Square comments, anyone?).
The move does leave a governing body open to the strong possibility of in-fighting though, prioritizing their area's needs over the district's overall needs. That sort of silo decision-making can be very unproductive, and even detrimental.
If I were Pleasanton Unified, absent a legal challenge that would promise sure defeat, I would consider taking time to study how the other Tri-Valley agencies who recently made the switch are navigating the new waters before jumping into the deep end myself. The city of San Ramon seems pretty productive in its first year while Dublin Unified still isn't exactly the poster child for togetherness -- as just two examples.
Because this change very likely cannot be undone.
I wouldn't make the switch in PUSD given the facts currently in front of us, but I won't fret much if they do. Embracing evolution is essential.
I just hope that though they'll represent voting constituencies in their specific geographic area, the trustees understand that they should always make decisions in the best interests of all PUSD students and the district as a whole first and foremost.
I also hope you, the Pleasanton voter, pay close attention to this process and voice your opinion, whatever it is. Because these next few months could be just as important as the November 2022 election in determining who represents you.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly since February 2017. His "What a Week" column runs on the first and third Fridays of the month.