Monday Morning Thoughts: School District Being Forced to Go to District Elections

On Thursday, the board listened to a presentation from attorney David Soldani, who argued that the district had little choice but to approve a resolution moving the district to a system whereby each member of the board represents a specific geographic area broken into five districts.

He explained that the Davis district is among the last of the districts using an at-large method of elections.  Under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001, since its adoption, many public agencies – not just school districts – have transitioned their voting model from at-large to district-based.

“The California Voting Rights Act says you cannot use an at-large method if it impairs the ability for a protected class to elect representation of its choice or to influence the outcome of elections,” he said.  Moreover, he said, “there have been changes to this law that enable people to submit a demand to the district to make that change.  Once received it commences a very tight timeline under which the district has to make a decision whether to change and ultimately when to complete the process.”

Taking this step, he explained, would protect the district both from the demand and from liability under the act.  That protection would last until 2020.

The district – if they approved the resolution – would have a series of public hearings which would commence the process of drawing maps of districts, including what those districts would look like.  He said that if they started this process right away, they would complete this process in time for district elections in 2020.

Joe DiNunzio commented, “If we’re not being forced, we’re being strongly urged to go down this path.”

He said, “If we don’t go in this direction, the odds are extraordinarily high that we will be sued.”  He added, “If we are sued, it will be expensive to defend ourselves, more than likely.”

Mr. DiNunzio added, “The odds are deeply against us.”

Mr. Soldani quantified it, “No one has successfully defended such a suit.”

He warned the board that postponing action, if the district received a letter threatening legal action, the district would be forced in a very quick process to create a district-based election system.  Whereas, if they act now, they would have approximately 18 months and be able to approve their own resolution.

Basically, he said, “If you take action now, you have more control.”

Alan Fernandes said, “I strongly support this action.  I support it knowing that in a place as homogenous as Davis, it will create some challenges.  I think there are benefits to having us all run community-wide because it ensures that we speak broadly to our whole community.  That said, I would think we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that, in our district, there have been inequities that we try our best to correct when we see them.”

Board President Bob Poppenga said, “I think the goal is good.”  He added, “I would have liked to have had more discussion about this.  I feel like this has been forced on us.”

He said that “the expensive litigation is no minor factor and the fact that no school district has prevailed when they have been sued.”  But he did say, “I would have to be convinced that this is on balance a good move for the district in this town… but I could be proven wrong.”

My thoughts on this…

The first and most interesting aspect of this is that this seems to be a preemptive move.  The district is not indicating that they have been sued.  Rather, they are seeking to “avoid the potential for costly litigation under the CVRA.”

I have no doubt that Mr. Soldani’s assessment is correct – the district has much more say in the process if they embark on the change now, rather than waiting to be sued.

But what was missing from his analysis is an assessment of the likelihood of being sued.

The second issue that bears some scrutiny is the standard that “you cannot use an at-large method if it impairs the ability for a protected class to elect representation of its choice or to influence the outcome of elections.”  Given the demographics of Davis, the lack of real ethnic enclaves, or even heavy concentrations of low income residents, it bears some question as to whether the district is actually at risk here.

I posed this to one of the board members last night and the response was – do we want to risk costly litigation to bear that out?  To which I might respond, having thought more about it, what is the chance that the district would have borne any litigation here at all?

On balance, I believe district elections can be good things in communities with sizable minority populations that are locked out of power by numbers and participation rates.

Woodland is a good example – it was just a few years ago that Woodland, a town with a very heavy Latino population, had a council that was all-white, male and Republican.   The results have flipped with district elections – three Latino members on the council.

And yet, there in 2016, Enrique Fernandez won his district with 1400 votes out of a total of about 3000 in a city with more than 50,000.  The good news is that such districts hold the costs way down and enable the candidates to get out to their voters.  The downside is low rates of participation.

In Davis, I don’t see the overriding need that necessitates district elections.  As Cindy Pickett pointed out on Thursday, participation rates are a concern here.  We saw a low candidate rate in 2018 with just three candidates, and really only two viable ones for two spots.  Will district elections leave us with a vacuum of viable candidates in key locations?

Finally, to what end?  In Woodland, we saw a clear shift when going to district elections, but in a very homogeneous Davis, the upside is not as clear.  But here we go – like it or not.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts


    1. Bill Marshall

      You raise an interesting question… not sure if a General Law City (aka Municipal Corporation, as Davis is) can do district elections… I recall that it was argued that one of the advantages of becoming a Charter City was district elections…

      Charter City status also has tax related implications… also more flexibility in enacting certain kinds of legislation, besides taxes…

      Grew up in a Charter City (San Mateo), and have lived in 4 General Law Cities (South San Francisco, San Bruno, Millbrae, Davis)

      Where is Jon Li when you need him?  He knows this stuff…

      Perhaps one of our “legal eagles” (or, legal beagles) can weigh in re:  issues related to City district elections…

      That said, agree with much of David’s take on this (DJUSD issue)… to me, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it… on the other hand would be interesting to see how school district boundaries would/could be ‘gerrymandered’ to accomplish the “purpose”… to make sure “protected classes” are represented… seems like the history of the DJUSD Board has included a good number of women, ‘people of color’, etc.   Perhaps they didn’t represent ‘their community’…

      A quick perusal of Gov’t code indicates that school districts are quasi-municipal corporations, formed for limited purposes.

  1. Hiram Jackson

    Bill Marshall: “I recall that it was argued that one of the advantages of becoming a Charter City was district elections…”

    Does that mean Woodland is a charter city?  Because they have district elections according to D. Greenwald in this article:

    Woodland is a good example – it was just a few years ago that Woodland, a town with a very heavy Latino population, had a council that was all-white, male and Republican.   The results have flipped with district elections – three Latino members on the council.


    1. Bill Marshall

      Just checked… according to…

      … Woodland is not a Charter City…

      Good catch!… thank you… Matt has posted add’l info as to whether a GL city can be compelled to go to district elections…

      I was remembering past discussions re:  Davis, Charter City status, and district elections, and those discussions may have had incorrect info…

      Will be interesting… not just for DJUSD, but City of Davis…

      To be clear, for both, I’m not in favor of district elections locally, but am definitely intrigued as to how the districts would be configure… and why… my philosophical bent is that an elected should be representing all of those in the jurisdiction… “for the public good”… yet, I know from history, and current practices that is not always the case… yet, there is a lot of past and current evidence that drawing of district boundaries have a lot of mischief as well… “safe seats”… concentrating ‘protected classes’ into a limited # of districts where they indeed have a “rep”, who is effectively impotent when it comes to having any real influence on the body in which they serve… there are many examples of where districts are drawn to actually stifle the voices of those of a certain ‘party’, and/or a particular ‘class’… the two edged sword…

      Let’s say that an entity went to district elections and the districts were drawn such that a “protected class” is represented, but always on the short end of the governing body’s vote… two edged sword…

      Still inclined to support Davis going to Charter City… risks and benefits, but in the whole, I see the benefits..


  2. Matt Williams

    Based on the following article, it does not appear to be necessary for a General Law City to transition to Charter City status if that City wants to implement District elections.

    Not too long ago, it was fairly rare for California cities to elect council members based on separate districts rather than competing citywide.

    But now, a rapid shift is underway.

    This past November, 57 cities across California changed how they elected city councils, switching for the first time to elect council members by distinct geographic districts. Many are located in Southern California.

    “If you haven’t been paying attention, we’re actually in the middle of a revolution in local governance in California,” said Kati Phillips, a spokeswoman for California Common Cause, a nonprofit that’s helped some cities organize independent citizen panels to draw up new council districts that previously were often created by politicians.

    Here’s how district elections work:

    Instead of picking representatives to represent the entire city, known as at-large elections, cities that switch to district elections slice the city into geographic areas. Council members are then elected to represent just the designated neighborhoods near where they live.

    The shift means changes for residents who live in those cities, and even more cities are likely to change to district elections soon.


    The changes are due in large part to legal challenges based on the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The law protects people of color against voting systems that limit their political voice and seeks to allow minority voters more representatives of their choice.

    The argument? Citywide or at-large elections tend to produce councils that fail to represent all neighborhoods — particularly disadvantaged ones. Some councils overseeing cities with diverse populations were led by all-white members, or included several city council members who lived in the same affluent part of the city.

    “In a lot of cases, these [California Voting Rights Act] lawsuits are responding to a real, just startling lack of representation in local government, and they’re just demanding that the status quo can’t remain,” Phillips said.

    Some of the lawsuits have been brought by attorneys like Malibu lawyer Kevin Shenkman, whose aggressive tactics include threatening to sue cities. Legal costs can soar into the millions of dollars.


    Over 100 of California’s approximately 480 cities currently use district elections for their city councils.


    The changes brought on by the California Voting Rights Act thus far have been modest.

    Of the 57 newly districted cities in 2018, 25 increased representation for minority groups. That’s fewer than half of the cities, points out Robb Korinke with the bipartisan public affairs consulting firm GrassrootsLab. The firm has been tracking local government elections for about a decade.

    “It’s really in the last two years that this extremely large volume …. of cities have been moving to districts,” Korinke said, adding that close to three-quarters of cities with districts have drawn those up within the last two years.

    Korinke says the number of cities making the shift to district elections will continue to grow. He anticipates about a third of all cities in California will soon hold district elections.


    California’s city governments are incredibly diverse in size, demographics and many other factors. Some argue that district elections make a lot more sense in certain locations than others.

    One negative consequence of moving to district elections: when residents vote by districts, passing controversial initiatives that might benefit an entire city becomes harder. Individual districts may oppose housing for the homeless located in their neighborhoods, for example.

    In less populated cities, a candidate could potentially win with a very small number of votes in district elections. And, under district elections, elected officials can be ousted a lot easier than in a citywide election because a recall election takes far fewer votes and less community organizing.


  3. Bill Marshall

    Another spin…

    If the district thing is so huge/important, then I’d opine that Commissions, committees, etc., follow suit… chosen based on districts to reflect “protected classes”… the logic would be consistent…

    At least one member of Planning (and other) Commission be a UCD student… at least one of a “protected class”… at least one be a uber-Republican (an under-represented class, locally?)… at least one be a Green… etc., etc…

    Would definitely be interesting… fun to watch…

  4. Alan Miller

    I want Davis to be a charter city so we can have choice voting.  There is no democracy without choice voting, and we will never get past the “two party” system without choice voting.

    1. Don Shor

      I want Davis to be a charter city so we can have choice voting. There is no democracy without choice voting, and we will never get past the “two party” system without choice voting.

      I seem to recall the voters addressed this topic in 2008.

      1. Mark West

        “I seem to recall the voters addressed this topic in 2008.”

        I guess that means there is no reason to discuss it again since nothing of note has happened on the political front in the subsequent decade…

        1. Don Shor

          I’d be happy to review all the reasons I opposed charter city status then, and oppose choice voting then and now, but it does seem like a separate topic.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Alan… as a NPP voter for a long time (since Demos let us folk vote in primaries, Reps aren’t there yet), am coming around to ‘choice voting’ (but still somewhat skeptical)… but many of us acknowledge, that’s not the current topic… or is it?

      I wonder if ‘choice voting’ as regards DJUSD Board, might possibly be a “work around” that would not require ‘districts’, and may ultimately better deal with representation for “protected classes”, or for non-“protected classes” who feel they are lacking representation, at least on the immediate topic, DJUSD elections…

      Have no idea as to feasibility, legally or otherwise, but perhaps someone will be motivated to explore it (I’m not except for curiousity/open mind), either for DJUSD, the City, or both… as far as I know (and I am clueless on this) DJUSD has no restrictions as to choice voting… could well be wrong…

      There are definitely other issues as to Charter City status (definitely another topic, as DJUSD and the City have very different boundaries), but those may not apply to school districts…

      Just a thought…

  5. Nicki King

    It seems to me that the DJUSD Board has NOT historically been representative of the various sectors of the community, and that should change.  By District elections could assure that candidates get to most of the neighborhoods in their district and increase the residents’ sense of responsibility for civic engagement.  As a 30 year resident of South Davis, I have long believed that the rest of the city cared little to nothing about South Davis, as the monstrosity of the Mace Blvd. “redesign” certainly shows. When I had K-12 aged kids, nobody cared much that the census at Pioneer exceeded 700, and that the school’s infrastructure could not support that number of students.  Finally, by the time my son was in high school, Marguerite Montgomery was built, alleviating the overcrowding and the lengthy commute for residents who lived in the Western end of South Davis (near Safeway), which is about 3 miles from Pioneer.  Not having a Board Member from South Davis meant we talked to Board Members who were not especially sensitive to our plight.  I a one-on one meeting, one of the Board members asked if I was so concerned about distance and overcrowding, why did I choose to live “over there”?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Nicki… note that the “driver” for this is “protected classes”… where you live does not automatically qualify as a “protected class”…

      As a fellow ‘newbie’ to Davis (we’ve only been in town ~ 45 years, each) I do understand some of your frustration tho’… 25 years ago we moved to Mace Ranch, and started paying both the CFD for existing schools, but also a second CFD (even higher rate) for new schools, like Koramatsu, Montgomery, and Harper… our kids were in elementary and JH at the time… we’re still paying both of those assessments… altho’ none of those schools, closest to us, were built until our kids were too old to attend… so, unless you were in a part of South Davis that paid into both CFD’s (aka funding for upgrades to existing, and the new schools), my sympathy only goes so far.

      Doing districts, without addressing the ‘driver’ of “protected classes”, will leave the district with the exact same threat of litigation.

      Just stating the facts… not trying to convince.

  6. Grace Bassett

    This feels rushed and preemptive, and primarily motivated by 1) fear of losing possible litigation and 2) fear of significant loss of working timeframe to develop a plan and have control over the process if doing nothing until legally challenged.

    However, given that 3 of our 8 elementary schools are choice (non-neighborhood-based) city-wide program schools and we only have 1 main high school, it seems extremely unlikely to me that anyone in the near future would that strongly believe district elections to be a strong and necessary means for improving the board’s diversity of neighborhood geographic representation.

    Even though a number of other school districts have been moving toward this, is there any reason the board couldn’t work on voluntarily drafting up a plan for district elections in the event that a lawsuit ever comes up, but not commit to actually implementing it unless a challenge actually comes up?

    That way we can continue to maintain at-large elections which seems more logical for our district, but also be able to benefit from the longer timeframe of voluntary planning and be prepared to go and work within that abbreviated timespan if an unlikely challenge ever comes up?

    Given how few candidates ran for this last election, it seems far likelier for a district or 2 to end up with no one interested in running, while another district may have 2 strong candidates who wish to run.

    If the concern is improving equity to make it easier and likelier for more people to run and get elected from a diversity of neighborhoods and backgrounds, I doubt that the cost and effort of running a city-wide campaign vs. a more district-focused campaign would make any real difference.  Under at-large or district elections, either way, it’s still an unpaid 4 year commitment that for many possible would-be candidates is daunting.

    Offering paid stipends for meeting attendance would likely be far more helpful in that regard as making childcare arrangements at times for those still with school age children can be a discouraging financial barrier.  Upon a casual look-up, I think I saw that about 75% of smaller school districts pay stipends for meeting attendance, instead of making these positions entirely unpaid.  Of course those who don’t need stipends can always simply donate them back to the district if so desired, while thus helping reduce the out-of-pocket and lost opportunity costs for those for whom that could make a difference.

    1. Cindy Pickett

      Grace – Board members do get a monthly stipend — $244.35/month. That being said I also paid my sitter $82.50 last Thursday so that I could attend the board meeting (closed + open session). Without the stipend, I would have to commit to spending $160 of my own money every month to serve, which I am fortunately in a position to do. However, many excellent candidates might have more extensive childcare needs that exceed the $244.35/month stipend. I too wonder who we might be losing out on as potential trustees because of these issues.

      1. Grace Bassett

        Ah, that’s good to hear that you at least aren’t having to pay out of pocket for childcare to be able to attend the regularly scheduled board meetings.  However, I believe that amount would still fall on the lower end of offered stipends, and easily not enough to adequately offset childcare for those with greater childcare needs such as those with a younger child or children who still need help with bedtime.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for