The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District publicly released a letter in response to the threat of a legal challenge against its district-wide election system. The challenge comes from the Pico Neighborhood Association, represented by Kevin Shenkman, and charges the current system is a violation of the California Voters Rights Act (CVRA). Shenkman represents the same group in a similar lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica who has a similar electoral system.

For more on the case against the city, click here. You can read SMMUSD’s legal response, here.

PNA and Shenkman charge that district-wide open-seat elections dilute the power of minority voter groups, in this case specifically that the Pico Neighborhood in Santa Monica doesn’t have the power to sway an election on its own to insure Latino representation. SMMUSD is not impressed by the threat and has enlisted the help of community members to publicly push back on the charge.

“I find it alarming that a group spearheaded by a Malibu-based attorney and his political allies are seeking to undo decades of election success,” said Zakiya, a Pico neighborhood resident and parent in a statement released by the District.

“The current system where all voters get to vote for all seven seats has clearly worked as our community has been able to successfully elect minority candidates to the school board for decades. We consider the at-large elections to be empowering, not crippling. Without it, diverse voices on the board would likely disappear.”

In its response to the letter from Shenkman, SMMUSD outlined several reasons why it would not consider changing the system by which members are elected to the school board:

  1. SMMUSD has a history of electing Latino candidates. The District writes, “Since that election (in 2004), every single Latino/a candidate who has run for the SMMUSD Board has been elected—from 2006 to 2022, 11 Latino/a candidate appeared on the school board ballot and won every time. Conversely, 39 candidates identified as White have run in that time, and fewer than half have won their elections. In total, between 1996 and 2022, 17 out of the 19 Latino/as to appear on the ballot have been elected, with both losses coming in elections where other Latino/a candidates won.” While this is true, a similar argument made by the city in its CVRA case has not led to the immediate dismissal as the city had hoped.
  2. The District Lacks the Authority Under the Constitution to Change the Structure of Its Board Unilaterally. The District includes the text of its authorization in the city charter which dictates how the board is comprised. It cannot change this with just a vote of the board. The Santa Monica City Charter section 900, states, the “Board of Education shall consist of seven members elected from the School District at large.”
  3. The District Is Also Facing a Challenge That Would Mandate New Districts That Could Lead to a Vote – For more on where that process stands, please read “SMMUSD Holds Second Hearing on “Absurd” Potential Redistricting Maps.”

“At-large elections for the SMMUSD school board have served our diverse community well,” said Cris Gutierrez, former teacher and longtime Santa Monica resident, also in a statement released by SMMUSD. “Attacking them violates the spirit of the California Voting Rights Act, betrays the trust of our diverse population and would likely do harm to the representation of students of protected classes.”

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