Cabrillo Unified School District is in the final stage of changing how board members will be elected starting this fall. 

At Thursday’s school board meeting, the board will hear public comment and consider waiving an election to approve districts as it moves from at-large representation to a by-trustee-area system. The plan is to divide the school district into five distinct areas, each of which will elect one member to the board. 

The redistricting comes in response to legal threats from groups seeking to enforce the California Voting Rights Act. The act outlaws election systems that stifle minority representation on elected bodies. 

Under consideration Thursday is a waiver to exempt the district from holding an election to codify the transition to a by-trustee-area system. McPhetridge said the district has completed legally required steps to be eligible for the waiver, including posting public notice of the hearing and notifying union representatives and school site councils. He said the election waiver would save the district $200,000 in election costs. 

McPhetridge said he became aware of this final step after nearby school districts received their waivers. He and board Chair Kimberly Hines both said they thought the process had been completed after the board held several public hearings on the topic last year.

“I personally thought we were done after we had gone through it multiple times in the spring,” Hines said. “That caught us all by surprise.”

McPhetridge was not part of the original redistricting conversation, but he and Hines said the board followed the usual protocol to come to the proposed map, including hiring a demographer to draw the lines and holding multiple public hearings. Hines said board members were able to give input on the draft maps, but did not design them. She said, in previous public meetings, the board did not hear much public opposition to the redistricting. 

Half Moon Bay resident Justin Stockman said he’s worried the by-trustee-area model may not work in small, less populated areas. He is concerned that geographic restrictions could limit competition for school board seats, and that if no one runs within a district, there could be empty school board seats. Stockman wants the district to do a thorough review of past board elections to see if candidates would have faced competition if the proposed map had been in place.

“My concern is that we rarely have significant competition for many Coastside elected positions ...” Stockman wrote in an email to the Review. “While the aim of district-based elections is incredibly valuable in ensuring fair representation of all groups within a community, it may backfire in small communities where interest in certain elected offices is less popular.”

Stockman also said he doesn’t think the board is fit to make its own redistricting decisions and would like the responsibility handed over to a separate, representative community group.

McPhetridge said the process follows the county’s recommendations and is consistent with what neighboring districts have done. In terms of whether the new map will make school district elections less competitive, McPhetridge said he doesn’t foresee that being an issue, but said existing board members could make appointments in such instances. 

“I think it’s difficult to imagine that no one would run,” McPhetridge said. “... It seems possible, but I don’t think it seems likely. It seems like people run for things here.”

To McPhetridge, the proposed map reflects existing community divides on the Coastside. While he thinks Cabrillo’s current board is fairly representative, he’s also seen in other districts how at-large elections can shut out minority voices. He said by-trustee-area voting could allow for greater local control and amplified community voices for the individualized needs of each area within the district. 

“The logic, as I understand it, is to avoid litigation and create even more local control for the voting public,” McPhetridge said.

The proposed map, which includes demographic breakdowns for each area, is based on 2010 census data. According to Mefula Fairley, senior administrator of board and superintendent support and community relations at the San Mateo County Department of Education, if the 2020 census reveals more than a 10 percent increase or decrease in population in one of the areas, the school district will have to initiate and self-fund redrawing its lines by March 2021. If the board fails to take action, the county’s Committee on School District Reorganization will intervene. 

To El Granada Parent Teacher Organization President Breanna Lafontaine, this final meeting is just a formality.

Lafontaine said she hasn’t heard of any district that has effectively fought the change. 

Hines said she was frustrated that no matter what the district does, the changes would cost them money. Nevertheless, she said she understands the importance of equity on the board. Hines said she wants to make sure the public knows that the voting process will change, but the way the board represents the community will not.

“We all represent the entire district,” Hines said. “We will work on behalf of all students, not just our neighbors.”

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