My View: Dunning Attacks District Elections but Ignores Montgomery and Achievement Gap in Doing So

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

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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.

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  1. Don Shor

    I think it is rather interesting that he relies on the letter from a retired professor rather than an attorney….

    Mr. Sokolow points out ….

    Dr. Sokolow’s CV includes “Interests: Community governance-Policy and politics in small and rural communities, farmland and land use policy, local government finance and organization, state-local relations, California politics and public policy, community leadership, field research”

    It is regrettable that policy decisions are being made based on the threat of lawsuit. Essentially, public interest attorneys are dictating policy by a process of borderline extortion. Is this board decision good policy? Yes, no? We don’t know. They’re doing it because they are afraid of having to fight in court.

    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.

    None by you, either. Along with the headline, this is the only time in your article that the words appear. So, do you think district elections will solve the achievement gap? Please explain how.

    The suggestion that district elections will help the achievement gap is tendentious at best. You imply that the current board majority is neglecting Montgomery and neglecting lower-performing schools because of their neighborhoods of residence and because of their ethnicities. Evidence, please? Can you point to school districts that have reduced the achievement gap? If so, how? Did district elections play a part in their success?


    1. David Greenwald

      My suggestion is only that the idea that the system is broken is subjective and that one of the problems is the achievement gap which has not been solved in a system where minorities are under represented on the board.  Will this solve the achievement gap?  I’m not claiming that it will.

  2. Bill Marshall

    District elections will not go well.  Potentially horribly, depending how the district boundaries are drawn.

    Likely to tend towards polarization of ‘fiefdoms’.

    Time will tell.

  3. Don Shor

    Let’s say you live in East Davis, but decide you want your child to enroll in Spanish Immersion. Then you decide that the program is under-resourced. Who represents your child’s best interests at that point? The board member whose district includes SI, or the one where you reside and vote?

    In other words, what is the impact of district elections on magnet programs?

    What impact do district elections have on special programs such as GATE, which are unevenly distributed through the district?

    Might have been worth exploring these issues before proceeding. But with the threat of a lawsuit, no time for any of that. Policy by extortion.

    1. David Greenwald

      Reasonable point Don.  The problem is – how does it work now?  Last year when they made changes to Montgomery, we were in effect left high and dry.  And we had no advocate on the board.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Last year when they made changes to Montgomery, we were in effect left high and dry.  And we had no advocate on the board.

        Ahhhh… the truth outs… if you had compelling facts/arguments, you are saying not one trustee would ‘advocate’?  Was it tried?  With all 5?

        Draw a district that you think would be ‘your advocate’… and see how many folk in that district agree with you…  would be an interesting, likely informative, exercise.

        Overt bias?

        The die is cast… we’ll have districts, we’ll see the outcome, and the advocates will have to either glory in it, or take responsibility…

    2. Hiram Jackson

      “Let’s say you live in East Davis, but decide you want your child to enroll in Spanish Immersion. Then you decide that the program is under-resourced. Who represents your child’s best interests at that point? The board member whose district includes SI, or the one where you reside and vote?”

      If trustees’ more immediate obligation is to serve their parent constituents, then I would expect that one would go to the board member where you reside and vote.

      The conflict for trustees might come from the impulse to see that their trustee district get school resources so as to improve local property values.

      1. Don Shor

        If there is a pie, and you’re cutting slices, and someone wants more funds for a magnet school that’s in a different district, it would be easy for the trustee to perceive that one school’s gain in funding is another school’s loss. So $$$ to Spanish Immersion deducts from dollars for schools and programs in the district of residence.
        A trustee who represents the whole district will see the need for district-wide equity. A trustee who represents a neighborhood would likely have a narrower viewpoint.
        How do district elections improve outcomes or benefit the district overall?

        1. Matt Williams

          Don, one of the past conversations between you and me has been about DJUSD’s policy that allows parents/students to choose their own school regardless of where their residence is located in the district. As evidence of that policy, you cited your personal experience with your own children, which included one or more such discretionary choices.  For lack of a better expression for that policy, let’s call it “open enrollment” in this discussion.

          Doesn’t the presence of this “open enrollment” policy further mitigate the likelihood that trustees will bias their voting toward the narrower viewpoint of their geographical district?

          If the bottom-line is $$$ (I’m not of the opinion that it would be, but that is a separate issue), then with so many of the students of the trustee’s “home” district spread far and wide into the various nooks and crannies of the district, won’t that mean the $$$ should be spread far and wide as well?

      2. Bill Marshall

        Hiram your last line… very unlikely to happen even in worst case scenarios… with programs spread around the City, too many variables for that to play out…

        Other than that, you raise an interesting and good point… the Board has to count to three on pretty much any matter… but if you had only one who would listen?  Now, 5 of them have to consider how you vote, and how you might influence others…

        Not a good trade-off, in my view…

      3. Hiram Jackson

        Don Shor: It’s hard to see that parent constituents of any single trustee district could be served without resources in another trustee district.  For instance, all students ultimately end up at a junior high and then a high school, one of which is likely to exist in a different trustee area.  In order for the junior highs and the high schools to have good outcomes, it’s important that all the elementary sites have resources to provide good formational education.


        1. Bill Marshall

          C’mon Don, you know the answer… there is no point, other than fear of “bullies” from outside… I hate bullies.  I’d rather fight them than cower to them… but that’s just me…

          But, it sure appears like a done deal… fait accompli… die is cast… train has left the station… pick your metaphor… by fiat, not vote of the folk in the District… some are ‘sowing the wind’… I hope we don’t reap the whirlwind…

        2. Matt Williams

          Bill, I disagree.  I don’t see it as fear of bullies from outside, but rather squandered dollars from inside. How much do you think the legal costs are going to be to legally fight the lawsuit?  $100,000?  $250,000?  A million?

          No matter what the amount actually is, it is a waste of money … unless that amount is $0.

          FWIW, last time I checked the cost of a special election was in the vicinity of $50,000. Would spending $50,000 on conducting a special election be money well spent?

        3. Bill Marshall

          Matt… that may be actually the cost of 2-3 ‘special elections’ in every 4 year period. Certainly, 3 -4 ballot types every two years.

          Let’s talk practicality as well as $…

          Implementation… the year it is implemented, technically all terms must end, as each trustee was elected at-large… lest some districts in effect, have multiple “reps”… the first year folk will have a minimum of their district one, plus 2-3 others, serving at large.  Oh, now we’re talking 5 different ballots initially.  More $.

          If they decide to phase it in, and ignoring the forgoing… am assuming that those whose terms end that given year will be the one’s who will be subject to it… could well mean that at least one incumbent would be ineligible to run… OK, I care not… is it fair?

          What would the boundaries be, and who decides*? How much staff and public effort costs are there in that?  Boundaries can be litigated, as well, particularly if districts are ‘gerrymandered’… is that in your calculus?

          [*Sidebar… the District has done a notoriously bad job of drawing attendance boundaries over the years… often creating safety concerns due to roads crossed… can explain over coffee, but not here, not now]

          Boundaries would have to be redrawn at least once every ten years, on the one person-one vote voting standard… maybe more often… more opportunities for legal challenges as to boundaries…

          David will likely say, “hasn’t happened in Woodland”… past performance in other less litiginous communities is no guarantee of future performance here… sure you’ve seen language similar to that in any investment prospectus you’ve ever received…

          Bottom line… fait accompli… district elections are going to happen… the die is cast…

          If it works great over time, will be the first to say I’m wrong… if it causes problems, I’ll be among those who are first to say “I told you so”…

          This (district elections) is a gamble… I seldom gamble… I prefer poker… even the State of California recognizes the difference.  But here, DJUSD is taking a gamble… bluffed out by those who prefer poker… wish they (DJUSD) had doubled down, or at least ‘called the bluff’, but that ship has sailed.  They folded.  “Easy money”, as it were… it is what it is, and we shall see what is reaped.

          The one ‘argument for’ that I sort of get is keeping the costs of running for office down… theoretically, maybe… but will that result in folk running who are more fit to serve, or just make it more of a rhetorical/pandering exercise?  In some districts, will anyone run that we’d like to see serve?  We’ll see… it’s a done deal, apparently.  In concept… zero specifics…

  4. Hiram Jackson

    “Certainly not the perspective of minority students in Davis who have for decades faced among the biggest achievement gaps in the state.”

    I find that discussing school district achievement through standardized test scores along lines of race/ethnicity alone is really muddy.  But when looking at student performance and outcomes by family education level, the gap is very clear and larger.

    When the school district summarizes annual standardized test score data, often they will point out that DJUSD Latino students perform at higher rates of proficiency than the rest of the state for that cohort.  But that ignores that Davis has higher levels of parent education across all racial groups, as well as among ELL students and students in the free/reduced lunch program, in significant part thanks to the presence of UC Davis.

    If standardized test scores are compared by family education level, then among students from families without college education, Davis students score at lower rates of proficiency than the state average for that demographic cohort.  There is a larger concentration of such students at Montgomery Elementary.  Conversely, students from families having graduate level college education score at higher rates of proficiency than the state average.  In other words, our school district appears to be better geared to serve college educated families than families without college education.

    A significant reason why White and Asian students score at higher rates of proficiency than Latino students is that a greater percentage of White & Asian families in Davis have college education.

  5. Eric Gelber

    I’m all in favor of district elections to increase representation of underrepresented groups. But I’m not following the argument for district elections in a city with a geographical population distribution like Davis. Montgomery may have a relatively higher proportion of students from protected classes, but is the discrepancy significant enough that district elections will make a difference in representation? The achievement gap throughout the school system is an issue that needs to be addressed; but, how will district elections accomplish that?

    Is there a map showing the residential distribution of protected racial/ethnic/language groups throughout the city such that voting districts could be drawn that would likely improve protected class representation?

    There are other advantages of district elections, such as making it easier for candidates to connect personally with voters. But that’s not as much of an issue in a city the size of Davis and I don’t think it outweighs the disadvantages of increasing parochialism.

    1. Bill Marshall

      For the sake of argument… suppose a So Davis district had a higher proportion of “protected classes”… they’d get to vote for a trustee once every four years, and the remaining districts, would have a smaller %-age of those folk in the remaining 4 districts.

      Math is FUNdamental… it takes 3 votes to pass just about anything at DJUSD.  If the reality is there is an ‘inherent bias’ in DJUSD, looks like the best outcome could be a lot of 4-1 votes.  Maybe some 3-2’s.

      Right now, every two years everyone can vote for 2-3 board seats…

  6. Richard McCann

    The better solution is rank choice voting like San Francisco has for mayor. It is more likely to allow underrepresented groups to bring forward their preferred candidates. It would also eliminate the effect of gerrymandering. (See this week’s horrid Supreme Court decision that will be as pernicious as Citizens United.)

    1. Alan Miller

      The better solution is rank choice voting

      Amen!  For President, too.  And everyone else.  But last time that was brought up, we were told we’d have to become a “charter city”, and then charter cities were trashed as a concept, and somehow choice voting for Davis got lost in the illusion.

      Majority voting is actually mathematically completely un-democratic.  It allows for two candidates with similar but majority views to split the vote and both lose to some looney.  Our system is f—-d up.

      1. Don Shor

        But last time that was brought up, we were told we’d have to become a “charter city”,

        Yes. That is the law.

        and then charter cities were trashed as a concept,

        Yes, charter cities have drawbacks and people should not adopt the concept without being aware of them. Much, much easier to raise your taxes on many things, just for starters.

        and somehow choice voting for Davis got lost in the illusion.

        It’s not an illusion.

        Majority voting is actually mathematically completely un-democratic. It allows for two candidates with similar but majority views to split the vote and both lose to some looney. Our system is f—-d up.

        I consider ranked choice voting completely undemocratic, a violation of the one-person/one-vote principle. Basically it’s a way for fringe parties and the far left to win elections by having their losing voters end up picking the winner. Maybe David will do an article on this topic some day.

  7. Dave Hart

    I don’t understand how district elections guarantees better representation in a town the size of Davis.  Yes, I get it if we’re talking about large cities, and Woodland is cited as an example of a smaller city where it works well.  But I don’t live in Woodland and I don’t understand what is at play there enough to evaluate an assertion that it works well there.

    In elections in Davis, we rank all the candidates.  I’ve never paid much attention to where they live.  Sometimes we seem to have a lot to choose from, sometimes it is slim pickings.  District elections will likely reduce the variety of candidates by neighborhood.  My fear is that we’ll get only one in some cases and usually no more than two.  On the other hand, maybe good candidates will start coming out of the woodwork.  Let’s hope so.  What we don’t know is that if there are so many good candidates just waiting to serve from all areas of town, what has kept them from running for office?

  8. Ron Glick

    “Ahhhh… the truth outs… if you had compelling facts/arguments, you are saying not one trustee would ‘advocate’?  Was it tried?  With all 5?”

    There was one, Madhavi Sunder, who at the time was the only person of color on the board. She sought to do the best thing for the kids at Montgomery, the worst performing school in the district, by advocating that they redraw the lines or somehow redistribute the low socioeconomic concentration at the school. This, by the way, is the best thing to do, and in fact was what the board majority at the time claimed as the reason they tried to suffocate the GATE program to death. The anti gate argument was that by putting all the kids in the same class we would have the brightest kids model best learning practices and help the rest of the kids learn better, of course this would be done in a setting that took into account individual differences and provided differentiated instruction in subjects like math.

    Yet when it came to actually addressing the achievement gap at Montgomery only Sunder advocated for the hard political choice of doing something bigger than going to two-way immersion that would have totally busted up the continuously failing program at Montgomery. All her white colleagues whiffed while one ex-member was so awful that she actually called for more study, a traditional dodge that was so weak or so dumb that Sunder took that member to task pointing out that we have years of study and years of inaction.


    Yes to district elections. What could it hurt?

    1. Dave Hart

      Ron, I can’t dispute the your take on how the community in general has failed Montgomery students.  But you ask how district elections would hurt.  I’d argue that the failing of the five school board members would only be replicated with district elections.  Except there may be even less chance that our community might get behind a solution.  Districts that feel “safe” with their “own” representative may be less interested in doing the right thing for someone else.  I think it can get a lot worse.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Yes to district elections. What could it hurt?

      We’re sure to find out, it  appears… I have already expressed my concerns, and don’t feel a need to re-chew my gum.

      It it works wonders, great.  If not, or ‘gets worse’…

      The next test will be how are the boundaries drawn, and by whom… this has not yet been disclosed or much discussed.

      Best the past GATE/AIM discussions will appear much simpler, in comparison…

        1. Bill Marshall

          Thank you, Don… hadn’t realized that was out yet…

          Leads to answers to some questions, but not others… guess we’ll have to wait for those…  suspect the schedule is a tad optimistic… but, maybe not.

          Big question will be in Nov 2020 will all trustees be up for voter approval, by district, or just those whose term is due to expire in 2020?

          Another big question will be how easy it will be to get consensus on the boundaries… crucial to meeting the schedule…

          Another significant question is who will be the demographer?  And realize that we’ll be mid-census at that point, with some significant residential projects in a bit of a state of flux.

          Should be an interesting 18 months

          Looks like we’ll know more, come Fall.

          1. Don Shor

            Anybody know which parts of town — East, West, North, South, Central — the current trustees live in?

        2. Bill Marshall

          I believe the district has that, but not on their website… probably 2 reasons… one is that the geographic areas you refer to are not universally recognized… second is posting addresses of trustees could raise privacy/security issues in the here and now.

          I knew the City kept track for CC and Commission members, but at a staff/need to know basis, to identity any conflicts of interest (based on residency/property ownership) where there were items coming before them, but not for general knowledge/publication… same general concepts… staff advised the elected/appointed as to whether they needed to/should recuse themselves.  But not publicly disseminated by City staff.

          That will probably come out more in the fall deliberations… but now raises another issue, as how COI will be interpreted… by standard distance-of-property criteria, or by the district they represent… suspect that will be somewhat easily dealt with, but it does add another question…

        3. Bill Marshall

          Don… all Board members should have filed form 700’s by April 1… those are on file with DJUSD and/or Yolo County.  They are public records, available on request.

          Should disclose their residence address, and any property they own within DJUSD boundaries…

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