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Trustee Area Elections FAQs

trustee area elections

Trustees Area Election FAQs


The Carlsbad Unified School District has moved from an at-large to a by-district voting system of electing members of the Board of Trustees (also kown as Trustee Area Elections). We hope the following Q&A will help you understand why we made the change and how it affects you.


How does the change affect voters?


Under the new by-district system, voters in each district will elect one trustee, who must live in that district. Voters in Districts 1, 4 and 5 will participate in the 2018 election and voters in Districts 2 and 3 will participate in the 2020 election.


What made CUSD consider moving from at-large to by-district elections?


In April 2017, the District received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes claiming the school district is violating the California Voting Rights Act (Elec. Code §§ 14025-14032) because Trustees are elected at-large rather than by districts. Dozens of local government agencies in California have faced similar challenges in recent years, including the cities of Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos and the school districts of Oceanside Unified, Vista Unified, and San Marcos Unified. In response to a lawsuit threat, on May 17, 2017 the CUSD Board of Trustees voted unanimously to move to by-district elections, taking advantage of a legal protection that enables school districts to have a say in district boundaries and avoid costly litigation if they voluntarily agree to move to by-district elections.


What is the basis for the threatened lawsuit against the city?


The law firm contends CUSD’s at-large voting system “dilutes the ability of Latinos, (‘a protected class’), to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of CUSD’s board elections.” The letter cites one instance where a Latino candidate ran unsuccessfully for the School Board despite receiving “significant support” from Latino voters.  


What were the District’s options?


We were required to respond to the letter by May 22. According to legal counsel, our options for possible responses were:


1. Initiate the process to voluntarily switch to district elections to avoid potentially costly litigation. We had 90 days to hire a demographer to draft election district maps and election sequencing proposals, hold five public hearings, and get final Board approval on one of the maps.


2. Conduct a study to determine if the allegation had merit. If this option had been selected, we would still need to hire a demographer to do the study by looking at the results of previous elections. If the demographer found that the allegation had merit, then it would make sense to voluntarily switch to district elections (and follow the process outlined in point #1 above); if the allegation appeared to have no merit, then we could consider fighting the claim in court.


3. Do nothing and fight the claim in court.


To avoid costly litigation, on May 17, 2017 the CUSD Board of Trustees voted unanimously to move to by-district elections (Option 1), taking advantage of a legal protection that enables school districts to have a say in district boundaries.


What have other school districts and cities done?


Almost without exception, other school districts and cities have either voluntarily, or been forced to adopt changes to their method of electing Trustees and/or City Council members. Many have settled claims out of court by essentially agreeing to voluntarily shift to district elections. Others have defended challenges through the courts. Those agencies that attempted to defend their existing “at large” system of elections in court have been forced to move to by-district elections and have incurred significant legal costs because the California Voting Rights Act gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney fees.


A few examples include:

  • Palmdale: $4.5 million

  • Modesto: $3 million

  • Anaheim: $1.1 million

  • Whittier: $1 million

  • Santa Barbara: $600,000

  • Tulare Hospital: plaintiff attorneys paid $500,000

  • Madera Unified: plaintiff attorneys asked for $1.8 million, but received about $170,000

  • Hanford Joint Union Schools: $118,000

  • Merced City: $42,000


Why didn’t CUSD wait until the school year resumed before taking action?


Time was of the essence. We only had 90 days to complete the process or a lawsuit could be filed. The Board of Trustees adopted the resolution that included the map on July 19, which gave the County Board of Education almost a full month to hold their hearing and approve the resolution before the 90-day mark on August 15.


What special parameters did the Board give the demographer?


The Board instructed the demographer to draw the lines so each school would be represented by at least two trustees to prevent “balkanization,” encouraging current and future trustees to continue our practice of focusing on the needs of all students.


What if two current trustees live in the same Trustee Area?​


The election year assignments are set by an odd combination of Election Code provisions that, under the interpretation of the San Diego County Board of Education, boil down to: any trustee area with a Board member whose term runs through 2020 in it is assigned to a 2020 election, even if there is a 2018 Board member also in the trustee area.


This means if Trustee Rallings (whose terms expires in 2018) and Trustee Williamson (whose term expires in 2020) were in the same district, Trustee Rallings would not be permitted to run for election until 2020 even though her term is up in 2018. Likewise, if Trustee Jones (2018) and Trustee Pearson (2020) were in the same district, Trustee Jones wouldn’t be able to run until 2020 and if Trustee Williams (2018) and either Trustee Williamson or Trustee Pearson were in the same district, Trustee Williams wouldn’t be able to run until 2020.


Why did the Board of Trustees choose the “green” map?


The green map met all the legal requirements, it honors the will of the voters by placing the trustees in different districts and each school is “represented” by at least two trustees.


Will the map change over time?


The map will be revisited after the 2020 Federal Census. It will probably be 2021 before the census results are published, so adjustments to boundaries might be made in time for the 2022 election.


Does moving to by-district elections mean that the Board of Trustees agree with the attorney’s allegation that our at-large election process was violating the California Voting Rights Act?


Absolutely not. Upon analyzing population data and voting trends, the demographer was unable to construct a Trustee Area map in which any district has a majority of Latino voters. Additionally, it is important to note that two of the five current Board members are Hispanic, ensuring representation of the Latino voting class in Carlsbad.


Despite the fact that the Board contends that our at-large election process does NOT violate the California Voting Rights Act, our legal counsel advised that school districts with at-large election systems are extremely vulnerable to liability under the CVRA. Given the potential for adverse findings and significant monetary liability for attorneys’ fees, the Board of Trustees initiated the process to convert to a by-trustee area election system.


Green Map (pdf format)  or interactive online format, available here