Map of the proposed 7-member Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee map.
Map of the proposed 7-member Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee map.

The five-member Santa Barbara Unified School District board of trustees was on track to move to district elections and add two board members by November 2022, but a new snag has emerged.

The board is set to narrow down the map proposals from five to three at a virtual meeting Tuesday night. The item begins about 7 p.m.

In 2018, the board voted to move to district elections under the threat of lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act. 

According to the California Department Education, Santa Barbara Unified is about 60% Latino and 33% white.

The district elections are designed to allow Latinx neghborhoods to elect a representative that represents their local schools and neighborhood, and therefore increase Latinx representation on the board.

The board currently has two Mexican-American women who serve on the board.

“District elections will benefit students and families through providing local representatives for each part of the community,” said Lanny Ebenstein, an economist, former school board member and district elections activist. “Candidates will be more likely to run for school board if the electoral district from which they will be elected is smaller. District elections result in schools that are closer to the community.”

The school district’s consultant, Cooperative Strategies, has held meetings dating back to last summer going over proposed maps. 

However, the district’s legal counsel, Craig Price, issued a memo on Jan. 20 that outlined a new hiccup in the district elections plan. 

“The seven-trustee option would break the district into smaller-sized trustee areas, and make it potentially easier and less expensive for individuals, especially from lower-income groups, to seek a position on the board” Price said. “Under such a scenario, which has been compared to the seven council districts in the city of Santa Barbara, there would be a closer neighborhood-type affiliation among trustees and constituents, compared to with larger five-trustee areas.”

But Price added that creating a larger district might thin the voting ranks out too much. Under Scenario 6, the seven-member district, the total population figures in trustee area number two would be 62.4% Hispanic/Latino, and only 42.8% would be comprised of the citizen voting age population.

In other words, the current proposed map of seven would not create a majority-minority district.

In addition, under the seven-trustee configuration, there would be three trustee areas with no district elementary sites and no district elementary population.

In the five-trustee plan, each trustee area except for one includes both elementary and secondary schools. Trustee area number five, includes secondary schools but no district elementary school or any geographic area containing any district elementary population.

“The seven-trustee area scenario would thereby establish a configuration in which three trustees would be selected by secondary residents only, and would have no voter-driven stake in district elementary schools,” Price wrote. “This would mean that board decision-making impacting the allocation of resources between elementary and secondary schools and populations would have three decision-makers who do not represent the elementary portion of the district.”

The seven-trustee map poses another issue related to the district’s bond program.

The projects underway in the district are separated between elementary and secondary funding sources. When the bonds were established in 2016, Price wrote, it was necessary to create a separate taxing entity, called a “school facility improvement district, to cover the elementary area.

Within that area, residents pay for capital improvements to both elementary and secondary schools, through the $58 million bond measure J. Secondary-only residents are included in the $135 million Measure I, which only taxes residents for secondary infrastructure.

“Under the seven-trustee area configuration, three of the seven trustees would be responsible for overseeing elementary capital spending despite not representing any of the district’s elementary population,” Price wrote. “In contrast, under the five-trustee area, only one trustee would be so configured.”

“I strongly support a map with seven districts,” Ebenstein said. “Only a map with seven districts is consistent with the California Voting Rights Act. Multiple academic studies indicate that district elections result in higher performance by Latino students. By leading to school boards that are more representative of the communities for whom they make decisions, the effectiveness of decisions increases.”

The board is scheduled to approve one of the trustee area proposals on Feb. 8.

The Santa Barbara County Committee on School District Organization must also approved the maps, and will take up the matter on Feb. 14 and 28.

Any time a board is increased from five to seven members, Price wrote, the two new members are appointed by the current board. The terms of the two new board members would expire in December 2023 and December 2025.

If the public does not agree with the county committee’s final district map, it can place the matter before voters by collecting enough signatures on petitions.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.