The Los Angeles County Committee on School District Organization denied a petition to change the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s elections by creating voting districts to replace the at-large electoral system for the Board of Education. The vote was a near-unanimous 9-1 vote, but represents just one step in the ongoing battle over the makeup of the Board.

The petitioners have vowed a lawsuit filed under the California Voters Rights Act to force a change. Meanwhile, the District is still negotiating with activists in Malibu about possibly splitting the District in two with schools in Malibu separating to create their own district.

The petitioners had little chance for success at the meeting. The maps submitted as the basis for the districts were widely panned as unworkable, even supporters took to the Daily Press to refer to them as “absurd.” The maps would have created several non-connected districts, with the most “absurd” of them combining the western parts of Malibu with a southeast neighborhood in Santa Monica.

“The blatantly illegal map attached to a petition before the LA County Committee on School District Organization would have carved up the body politic electing the school board unjustly.  The illegal map proved the petition to be spurious, wrong and hence rejected,” writes Chris Gutierrez, a retired teacher and Santa Monica resident.

The petitioners to the school committee were represented by Kevin Shenkman, the lawyer also representing the potential plaintiffs who have threatened to sue SMMUSD to force district elections under the California Voters Rights Act (CVRA). These plaintiffs include Maria Loya, Jennifer deNicola, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Pico Neighborhood Association; many of whom are also party to a similar lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica.

In both the petition to the school committee and a letter to SMMUSD threatening legal action, Shenkman outlines the case for district based elections under the CVRA. He argues that district-wide open-seat elections, the ones currently in-place in Santa Monica and SMMUSD, dilute the power of minority voter groups. In these cases specifically, the Pico Neighborhood in Santa Monica doesn’t have the power to sway an election on its own to insure Latino representation. 

For her part, Gutierrez is unimpressed with this argument. “It is an impaired reading of the CA Voting Rights Act to assume that by-district elections in all cases  safeguard the voice and rights of protected classes of  both voters and our diverse student population,” she writes. 

In its response to Shenkman’s letter threatening a lawsuit, SMMUSD also argued that its current electoral procedures discriminate or dilute the power of latino voters noting the electoral success latino candidates have had running for the SMMUSD Board, including Oscar de la Torre, the husband of Maria Loya, one of the potential plaintiffs.

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