Committee on School District Organization conducts first meeting on board election process

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Submitted petition proposes SMMUSD switch to Trustee Area voting to select its members

By Barbara Burke 

Special to The Malibu Times

On Jan. 31, Santa Monica College hosted the first of two meetings held by the Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization concerning whether to alter the way voters elect members of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board. The committee is an independent, 11-member elected body that studies and makes recommendations and decisions on school district organization in Los Angeles County.

Currently, all registered voters in Malibu and Santa Monica get to vote for all seven board members in at-large elections alternating election cycles every two years — three of the seven seats are on the ballot in one cycle, and then, four of the seats are on the ballot in the next. 

The committee is considering a Trustee Area voting petition submitted by a small group of petitioners proposing to divide the district into seven geographic “trustee areas.” The petition proposes that candidates who live in a trustee area would run in that area once every four years and voters who live in each area would vote every four years for only trustee-area candidates. The change would mean that voters only get to elect one of seven school board members every four-year cycle.

The committee held the hearing to gather information and listen to interested parties and legal counsel for petitioners and the school district. The committee did not make any decisions at the meeting. At the conclusion of the two hearings, the committee is tasked with either approving or disapproving the petition. If the committee approves the petition, the proposal will be presented to the electors of the district at the next statewide election.

Important details that may impact the committee’s ultimate decision

A timeline recounting relevant events is helpful to understand the dispute. SMMUSD, which was formed in 1875, is not contiguous. In 1981, Ed. Code 35543 was enacted and prohibits the formation of a non-contiguous school district. Accordingly, SMMUSD is an atypical district. 

In 2021, a year before the petition was filed, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 442, putting all trustee-area voting petitions on equal footing with at-large voting districts, regardless whether a city charter, such as Santa Monica’s, addresses the issue and regardless who presents a petition, whether it is a school district, voters or a county committee itself.

In 2022, nearly 1,000 voters filed the petition at issue. However, disposition of the matter was held in abeyance because in March 2022, SMMUSD sued the committee that is considering the petition, claiming SB 442 is unconstitutional. In January 2023, the L.A. Superior Court entered judgment against SMMUSD in that action.

In 2023, Assembly Bill 764 was enacted and states that a committee’s first priority in configuring how to structure election districts is to ensure that election districts are “substantially equal in population as required by the United States Constitution.” The second priority is for the committee to “comply with the United States Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The third priority mandates that “to the maximum extent practicable, election districts shall be geographically contiguous.” 

The bill’s fourth through seventh priorities instruct that “to the maximum extent practicable, an election district shall represent ‘communities of interest,’ align with political subdivision boundaries and with natural and artificial boundaries so that district configurations are easily understood by citizens and districts must be compact.” 

All of these criteria were addressed by legal counsel and citizens who spoke at the committee hearing. 

Legal arguments 

The committee heard arguments from Kevin Shenkman, petitioners’ counsel, who stated, “The County Committee’s attorneys have advised us that these meetings will be focused on the design of a trustee-area map.”

“The politics of SMMUSD are horribly broken,” Shenkman stated. “It is that political dynamic that has resulted in SMMUSD wasting obscene sums of money on attorneys to sue this County Committee, challenging the constitutionality of voting rights protections, rather than focusing those resources on the education of children. Trustee-area  elections are the beginning of what is necessary to fix the broken politics of SMMUSD, and bring true representation to all the residents of SMMUSD.”  

He presented three alternative maps developed by David Ely, a demographer. The first map, developed by Ely in 2021, was attached to the initial petition. Map 2 was created in 2022 and Map 3 was created in 2023. Addressing Ely’s qualifications as well as his familiarity with Santa Monica, Shenkman noted Ely has testified in local, state, and federal voting district configuration cases and that in 2018, Ely developed a district map for Santa Monica’s City Council elections, which was adopted by the Los Angeles Superior Court.  

Shenkman also noted that “Ely was previously retained by the City of Malibu to develop its council districts in 2020, and thus was able to draw on his knowledge of the Malibu community in developing trustee areas in this case.” Shenkman stated that petitioners and Ely obtained public input regarding the maps in both communities.

Petitioners’ written submission to the committee said, “As soon as Governor Newsom signed SB 442 in July 2021, Petitioners began soliciting input from a variety of stakeholders and community groups. Several of Santa Monica’s recognized neighborhood organizations, including Northeast Neighbors and the Pico Neighborhood Association, contributed their thoughts, as did members of the Malibu Democratic Club. Local elected officials, including two SMMUSD trustees and two Santa Monica City Council Members, also expressed their support for trustee-area elections and shared their thoughts on specific trustee-area boundaries. Recognizing the particular impact at-large elections have had on the Pico Neighborhood – where Santa Monica’s Latino  community is concentrated – a separate meeting was held with the Pico Neighborhood Association board in September 2021, where the board expressed their unanimous support of the map and the petition.” 

Shenkman added, “Petitioners received additional feedback from members of Friends of Sunset Park, another of Santa Monica’s recognized neighborhood organizations. They were supportive of the petition, but expressed concern over their neighborhood being divided between trustee-areas in the map. In response to their  concerns, Ely prepared Map 2, which is similar to Map 1 but avoids dividing the Sunset Park neighborhood between trustee areas.”

Finally, counsel stated, “when SMMUSD’s counsel, Fredric Woocher, sent the committee a letter in December 2023 criticizing the non-contiguity of two trustee-areas in Map 1 (without recognizing that SMMUSD is itself non-contiguous), Ely developed  Map 3 to provide the County Committee with a  full range of options to consider.”  

Shenkman asserted that, as to all three maps, “the populations of the trustee areas are well within 10 percent of one another, areas with similar social and economic demographics were grouped together where possible; natural and school-related boundaries such as main roads and existing school attendance boundaries were used to divide the trustee-areas where possible; and the residences of incumbents was not a factor in drawing any of the  districts.” 

He elaborated, stating, “consistent with traditional districting criteria, Ely recognized that SMMUSD comprises two non-contiguous regions: 1) Santa Monica, and 2) Malibu and the unincorporated area around Malibu, and that the Malibu portion of SMMUSD has a population to constitute approximately 1.2 trustee-areas. Ely also recognized the deep polarization between Santa Monica and Malibu voters, respectively, in their choices of candidates for SMMUSD’s board.”

That polarization, Schenkman maintained, “is best illustrated by the 2012 election. Three Malibu residents —  Karen Farrer, Craig Foster and Seth Jacobsen — ran for the SMMUSD board, and despite overwhelming support from Malibu voters they all lost due to a lack of support in Santa Monica.”

Given those dynamics, counsel informed the committee that “Ely determined the most appropriate course was to draw two districts in which Malibu voters will have an equal opportunity to their Santa Monica neighbors to elect candidates of their choice.” He noted that Ely also considered which two portions of Santa Monica should be combined with eastern and western Malibu, respectively. Because the Malibu portion of SMMUSD is almost entirely zoned “R-1” for single-family homes, Ely identified the regions of Santa Monica similarly zoned R-1 – the “Sunset Park”  and “North of Montana” neighborhoods, which also happen to be the most affluent  areas of Santa Monica — and combined portions of those two regions with the Malibu regions. In doing so, Ely also looked to school attendance boundaries, such as Wilshire Boulevard and the alley between 14th and 15th Streets.  

Shenckman said, “the remaining trustee areas were crafted to reflect the recognized  neighborhoods of Santa Monica (e.g. Ocean Park and Wilmont) as much as possible while adhering to population equality. This approach is consistent with traditional districting criteria, and also consistent with the expressed desires of  nearly all members of the public who offered input.”  

Map 2, which Ely developed at the request of Sunset Park neighborhood residents who did not want their neighborhood divided, combines a western Malibu area into a trustee area with an area of northwest coastal Santa Monica rather than Sunset Park. From there, a trustee area comprising Sunset Park was crafted, and then the remaining trustee areas were adjusted as needed to preserve population equality. 

“Just as with Map #1, Map #2 was developed based on the traditional districting criteria discussed above, it is equally appropriate and accomplishes the same empowerment of minority voters; it just reflects a few different districting choices  than Map #1,” Schenkman said.

Finally, Map #3 was developed in response to criticism from residents that Ely’s other maps include two non-contiguous trustee areas, Shenkman stated, adding, “Map #3 includes only one non-contiguous trustee-area, but to limit the number of non-contiguous trustee-areas to just one requires that 1,625 residents of Malibu be subsumed into a  trustee-area that is 89% Santa Monica. Thus, with Map #3, or any map with only one non-contiguous trustee-are, the votes of Malibu residents in a Santa Monica dominated trustee-area will be essentially meaningless just as in the current at-large system.” 

In closing, Shenkman asserted that “it is not possible to draw equi-populous trustee areas without at least one non-contiguous trustee area, because SMMUSD is itself non-contiguous and the population of the Malibu region of SMMUSD accounts for significantly greater than one-seventh of  SMMUSD’s total population.” 

He noted that California courts have repeatedly emphasized that  the statute’s criteria of “practicable” is not synonymous with “possible.” Rather, when the Legislature uses the word “practicable,” as it did in Section 21130(c)(1), it vests the decision maker, in this case, the committee acting as the districting body, “considerable discretion to consider the advisability” of the action referenced in the statute. Accordingly, Shenkman urged the committee to adopt one of the petitioners’ three maps and find that trustee voting is appropriate. Alternatively, he asserted, the committee should develop a map of its own.

SMMUSD counsel’s arguments

SMMUSD’s legal counsel, Fredric Woocher, argued that Map 1 and Map 2 do not comply with Elections Code section 21130(c)(1) which provides “[t]he districting body shall adopt election district boundaries using the following criteria … : [t]o the maximum extent practicable, election districts shall be geographically contiguous.” 

He further objected to the petition, maintaining that Santa Monica and Malibu residents should continue to vote in at-large elections because the trustee-area map petitioners developed in 2021 runs afoul of a law (AB 764) that did not exist at the time the petition was filed. 

Woocher maintained that the committee lacked authority to consider alternative maps and was confined to only considering Map 1, which was attached to the petition. 

“Petitioner’s maps have never been presented in a public hearing before,” he stated. “This committee cannot make up another map.”

Woocher did not submit an alternative map for the committee to consider. 

Constituent remarks

Former District Representative Craig Foster of Malibu, advocated for the trustee voting system, stating, “With just a little over 15 percent of SMMUSD’s voters, if a candidate gets every single vote in Malibu, without more than double that number in Santa Monica, they lose.”

Foster noted that in 2012, after four years without a Malibu board member, three Malibu residents ran against three Santa Monica residents. “We won in Malibu, they won in Santa Monica, and they won all three seats,” he said.

“In 2014, I won after six years during which Malibu did not have a board member, but I had to raise and spend more than twice the nearest competitor, more than had ever been raised before, and I ran my entire campaign in Santa Monica,” Foster added. “Even having won that election, every day, in every position I took I had to remember that Malibu’s ability to even have a voice on the school board was at the sufferance of Santa Monica.” 

Foster recounted that for the eight years he served on the SMMUSD board, he “consistently advocated for trustee-area elections, to absolutely no success.” 

For those who run SMMUSD, Foster asserted, “trustee-area elections means sharing their power, and they are unwilling to cede any power.”

He added, “What I have learned in my time on the SMMUSD board is that imposing their will and retaining political power is their greatest value, lawyers are the first recourse, no sum of money is too large to impose that will, any argument that suits their purposes on any given day is the argument they make, and for them ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is not a cautionary tale, it is a game plan.”

SMMUSD is itself non-contiguous, Foster noted, stating, “They have fought for decades to maintain that non-contiguity. Now, suddenly, they are concerned with contiguity. They will say anything, do anything, spend any amount of money to preserve their power, however absurdly contradictory and against their educational mission that might be.” 

In closing, he said, “They’ve hired lawyers instead of demographers. They’ve sued you. They will fight trustee area elections to the last drop of their general fund. But, it won’t be the incumbent board members who bear the brunt of their selfish decisions; it will be the students.

My main message to you tonight is please save SMMUSD from itself.” 

Statements by Malibu residents  

Malibu constituents argued in support of the petition, while some Santa Monica residents opposed the provision. 

Charlotte Drummond, 23, the youngest person to make a statement in front of the committee, graduated from Malibu High School in 2019.

“I’m a recent Emerson College graduate who attended Malibu schools since seventh grade. I encourage you to support these new district maps that will make voting finally fair for both Santa Monica and Malibu families.” Drummond said. “As a former student who worked hard despite the inferior facilities and curriculum MHS had, as compared to Santa Monica High, I know the difference between having a voice and not having a voice in this district.” 

Drummond concluded, saying, “Malibu NEEDS a voice and these maps are constitutional and should be followed. We are not even connected to Santa Monica so we should have our own trustee districts so we are fairly represented.”

Malibuite Bill Sampson advocated that the committee adopt one of the maps and stated, “Malibu deserves fair representation on the school board. The entire time my adult daughter attended Malibu schools, we have not had a voice and simple fairness dictates that until the district divides, and while we are stuck with each other, we should at least have a voice.”

Several Malibuites with children attending public schools also advocated that the committee adopt one of the maps and adopt trustee areas for SMMUSD’s elections. 

Jennifer DeNicola asserted that “not allowing Malibu fair representation is terrible for democracy and it’s terrible for the kids.”

Melanie Heseker equated the current state of affairs “wherein Malibu does not get fair representation to the situation that led up to the American Revolution where England was taxing the colonists, but they had no representation.”

Stacy Rouse, who currently serves on the SMMUSD board, spoke as an individual instead of in her official capacity, and stated, “We need to move to trustee areas so that there is more accountability and better communication with each neighborhood.” Rouse said that when Malibu finally gets its own school district, she advocates that the new district utilizes trustee voting.

Those who appeared in opposition to the petition included Sirinya Matute, a resident of Santa Monica, who stated, “Adopting the trustee format for the district would create a textbook case of gerrymandering.”

Patti Braun stated, “The map attached to the petition divides my neighborhood and the integrity of Sunset Park is not protected, which ignores the rights of a protected class.”

Maria Leon-Vazquez stated, “I have been a SMMUSD board member for 23 years and the maps presented are a classic example of a violation of the California Voting Rights Act as trustee elections will dilute racial diversity. Santa Monica voters have consistently elected Latino school board members. I am a resident of Sunset Park and the petition proposes to divide my neighborhood.”  

As the committee adjourned, its members noted that they have a lot to think about. The second committee meeting is slated for Feb. 10 at 9:30 a.m. at the SMMUSD main office located at 1717 4th St. in Santa Monica.