Columnist Bob Dunning continues to lament the school board decision to transition to district elections – and while there are certainly aspects of it that deserve questioning, at this point it’s a done deal and they are not going back.
“Since the esteemed members of the Davis School Board bowed to the threat of a costly lawsuit and decided to take us into the unchartered waters of district elections, I’ve heard from a number of well-educated folks, not one of whom is in favor of this course of action,” he writes.
“Are you being disenfranchised?” he argues. “Indeed you are. Do the math and you’ll realize you just lost 80 percent of your voting power.
“In some cities, simple fairness demands district elections to make sure that traditionally underrepresented groups have a fair shot at holding office,” he continues. “Davis is not such a city. Put simply, there is not a readily identifiable group of underrepresented people who all live in the same part of town. No matter how we draw the district lines, it will be hard to distinguish the demographics of one district from another.”
“Still, I defy these outsiders to point out to a court of law how district elections in Davis would even remotely benefit a currently underrepresented group. That case simply cannot be made,” he argues.
But here I think he’s categorically wrong.
I think it is rather interesting that he relies on the letter from a retired professor rather than an attorney – which is what the district relied on for advice.
It is not that attorneys are infallible and they do tend to be risk-averse. But that is a key problem here – Mr. Dunning is not fully considering the risks and rewards of a legal challenge.
Mr. Dunning argues that he believes the district could win a legal challenge. He is possibly right. But part of the reason why the district listened to legal advice is not only the fact that no other district has won when challenged legally, but this is far from a free shot.
Not only is there is a considerable amount of money involved which would not be covered by the district’s litigation insurance – in lean times of budget that has to be a consideration – but there is also a cost to losing.
If the district does this voluntarily they control the process, can do community outreach, and determine how to proceed. If they lose a lawsuit, the solution is imposed on them by a court.
Add up the stakes – no one else has won, the cost of litigation and loss of local control – and every member of the board made the decision to follow the district’s legal advice.
The bottom line here is that, while we all like to argue these things, when sued, most people hire an attorney to represent them in court – and most who don’t will regret not having done so.
After reading Mr. Dunning’s latest column, I looked into the law. The California 2002 voting rights act requires local governments to change to district elections “if a local minority group can show that voting in the community favors the majority because of racial polarization.”
This evidently requires evidence that the majority racial group has voted as a bloc to elect its own candidates.
Mr. Dunning quotes Al Sokolow on several key points.
Mr. Sokolow points out that district elections help “overcome the discrimination inherent when racial or ethnic minorities were heavily concentrated in particular neighborhoods, but lacked the numbers to elect candidates under an at-large arrangement.”
He argues: “Davis lacks such geographical concentrations.”
He adds: “I doubt that a compelling case can be made that Davis school needs vary so much by neighborhood (or school) that district elections for Board members are necessary.”
But is he correct?
There is a counter-argument here that neither Mr. Dunning nor Mr. Sokolow explores.
The first point is that DJUSD is much more diverse than most people believe. We’ve pointed out the numbers, but by 2020 we will expect that whites in the district will be near about 55 percent of the district, with students of color – predominantly Asian and Hispanic – accounting for nearly 45 percent of the district population.
That represents a huge change over 20 years ago when whites were far in the majority. The school district has for the last 15 years had a member who is a person of color: from Tim Taylor to Madhavi Sunder to Cindy Pickett.
But even there you can argue that racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented on the board – 20 percent on the board, 40-45 percent in the community.
The second part of that is that for some reason no one is taking into account the fact that there actually is a part of town that is much more heavily a minority that other parts of town. You will recall that one of the controversies over the closure of Valley Oak was that it was the school with the highest population of low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities.
When the school closed, those populations did not disappear. They simply went south to Montgomery. Montgomery, even before it became a Spanish-language magnet school, was unique in the district – as it serves a large number of Latinos whose families are farmworkers and domestics. It is the only Title I school in the district and that is based on residential patterns.
Why has that point been largely overlooked in this?
There is another advantage to going to district elections and that is that it lowers the barrier to entry for candidates.
Finally, Mr. Dunning in his column argues, “It’s not broke, but we’re fixing it.”
But from whose perspective is that written? Certainly not the perspective of minority students in Davis who have for decades faced among the biggest achievement gaps in the state. No discussion of that by Mr. Dunning.
You could argue that from that perspective alone a very compelling legal case could come forward.
I still have questions here – one is whether the district has a potential lawsuit or whether they are really reacting out of the abundance of caution to a potential suit. The other is if there is not the threat of an actual suit, why did they wait until the literal last moment before going forward with this?
Nevertheless, if Mr. Dunning is going to rail against the decision by the district, perhaps he should do a bit more examination of several of the points raised in this column.
—David M. Greenwald reporting