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Voting by trustee areas will shake up board elections

Posted: March 25th, 2016 | Features, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Jeff Clemetson | Editor

One member may automatically lose her seat

Grossmont Unified High School District (GUHSD) board member Jim Stieringer said he plans on running for reelection in November. And when he does, his campaigning may be much different than previous elections.

If a recent decision by the board to scrap districtwide elections and adopt trustee areas is approved by the County Board of Education, Stieringer will only need to convince his neighbors in the La Mesa area, and not the district as a whole, that he is worthy of another term.

The switch to trustee area elections began when GUHSD received a letter from the Procopio law group saying that the district was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Because the Lemon Grove and Spring Valley areas both have a majority of minority families, the CVRA requires they be given a chance at fair representation.

Rather than face a costly lawsuit, the district hired the National Demographic Corp. to come up with a plan to divide the district into separate trustee zones. The demographers offered up three plans.

The proposed areas for Grossmont Unified High School District trustee elections (Courtesy of Grossmont Unified High School District) [Click to enlarge.]

The proposed areas for Grossmont Unified High School District trustee elections (Courtesy of Grossmont Unified High School District) [Click to enlarge.]

The first plan was based on cities and unincorporated communities; the second on high school attendance zones; the third on “feeder” elementary school districts.

In all three plans, the Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and La Presa neighborhoods were deemed minority neighborhoods, needing special attention to make the trustee areas compliant to the CVRA.

At a special meeting on Feb. 25, the board voted to approve the trustee area plan based on cities and unincorporated communities. They also voted to ask the State Board of Education for a waiver from a public vote on the plan to change to trustee area elections — opting instead to allow the county board to accept or reject the trustee area plan. If the proposal goes to the public for a vote, it would leave the district open to lawsuits.

To Stieringer, the creation of trustee areas is a great idea in concept, but an unnecessary one.

“Although the southern part of the GUHSD, including Spring Valley and Lemon Grove, are currently unrepresented, our GUHSD board is not provincial. We have fairly and consistently represented the entire 500,000 East County residents,” he said. “My hope is that we will not suddenly become balkanized simply because we are elected by area rather than at large. I will personally consider only the best interests of the region, regardless of any narrowly defined area that I represent.”

Stieringer isn’t the only board member worried about the district becoming fragmented by area interests. At the Feb. 25 meeting, board member Robert Shield said while he preferred not to break up the district into trustee areas, state law regarding the CVRA superseded his opinion.

“I would prefer to be elected by the Grossmont High School District, not an area that represents 20 percent of the Grossmont High School District,” Shield said. “Ten, 15 years from now a board member might sit in this seat and say, ‘I was elected by the people living in La Mesa and Casa de Oro so I have no interest what happens in Lakeside, I have no interest what happens in Santee.’ And you can very quickly evolve into a district where you have five people advocating for five different things — and that’s when real politicizing of the board will take place.”

A trustee left out

At the Feb. 25 meeting, it was apparent that the proposed trustee areas may already be politicizing the board.

During public comments, former GUHSD Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee member Nick Marinovich accused the board of gerrymandering and questioned whether the process was an attempt to “legislate out a trustee.”

That trustee is Priscilla Schreiber, who due to the new voting areas will not be allowed to seek reelection. Schreiber lives within a mile of Shield, putting them in the same trustee area, and because Shield has two more years left on his term, he is automatically allowed to retain his seat. Schreiber won’t be allowed to run for reelection in their trustee area until 2018, presumably against Shield.

“I cannot understand a districting map that will in effect exclude one of your current board members — trustee Schreiber,” said Greg Barr, a resident of Rancho San Diego and a trustee of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District board. Barr called the districting plan a “suspect” move because Schreiber supports the building of a new high school in Alpine and a majority of the board does not.

“In the proposed maps, Jim Kelly will be the representative of Alpine even though he opposed a high school there,” Barr said. “It is the purpose of these redistricting maps to provide representative areas so that the residents can have their own representative. But Mr. Kelly would not be representing the wishes of Alpine.”

The other board members defended the boundaries drawn up for the trustee areas as necessary to ensure that the Lemon Grove/Spring Valley area would be compliant with voting rules.

“The CVRA was passed by the state legislature, not this board,” said Kelly. “This board is not legislating anything.”

“The demographers have no dog in this hunt,“ Stieringer said in an email interview after the meeting. “They were tasked to establish five areas of approximately equal population (around 95,000 each), one of which would include a plurality of minority residents. They did their job without bias. Similarly, our board did its job without bias. It is now up to the County Board and State Board to make a reasoned decision. I believe that they will do so even though they may be heavily lobbied to reject the proposed map.”

What’s next

Before the trustee areas are approved, the plan must go through public hearings before going to a vote before the San Diego County Board of Education. In a separate hearing in May, the State Board of Education decides whether to accept the GUHSD board’s request for a waiver and uphold the county’s decision, or send the proposal to voters in November.

The first public hearing was held on March 17 at the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. The next will be held at 6 p.m. on these dates at different locations:

  • March 28, at the GUHSD East County Regional Education Center
  • April 4, at Joan McQueen Middle School
  • April 5, at Jamul-Dulzura Union School District
  • April 11, at Lakeside Union School District

The County Committee on School District Organization meets April 13 to approve or disapprove the GUHSD request. After that, the State Board of Education will consider the waiver on May 11-12, assuming the county has approved it.

“The schedule [of hearings] will allow us to place the new areas on the November 2016 ballot if it is approved,” Stieringer said.

—Write to Jeff Clemetson at jeff@sdcnn.com.

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