Latino voters in much of North Orange County would have a stronger say in school board elections this November, Anaheim Union High School District leaders said as they approved their first-ever voting district boundaries Thursday night.
At the same time, some activists argued that the process needed more public input, including showing where racially polarized voting actually occurred, and called for an impartial judicial panel to select the lines.
The map’s approval came on a 4-1 vote by the district’s board, with Board Member Katherine Smith opposing.
It creates one trustee district in northwest Anaheim that has a 51-percent Latino majority, and another district with a 45% Latino plurality.
“We are giving our Hispanic element [a] much stronger voice, I think, in this particular scenario,” said Board Member Anna Piercy.
The move comes as the board, facing pressure from activists citing the California Voting Rights Act, shifts its elections from an at large system to single-member districts.
One of those activists, Arturo Montez, who is a leader with the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC, said the board should have a three-judge panel choose the lines, not the board itself.
“We are a nation of laws, gentlemen,” said Montez. “We don’t believe in side deals. We don’t believe in covert operations.”
He suggested that a lawsuit could be coming.
“We’re trying to avoid a legal conflict, gentlemen,” said Montez. “Not in any of the process did your consultants show you where the polarized voting” took place.
Meanwhile, the district’s consulting attorney on the issue, Spencer Covert, told the board that its map is legal.
Fellow LULAC leader Zeke Hernandez urged board members to consider maps put forth by the community.
As he was listening in the audience, Hernandez told the board, he thought, “Gee, they’re only talking about the maps” that their consultants put together.
He also thanked the board for moving forward with district elections without a lawsuit.
“We commend you for taking the early steps to do by-trustee elections,” said Hernandez.
Piercy, meanwhile, said she did indeed closely study the community maps but found that LULAC’s didn’t give enough of a margin for Latino voters.
“I think we need two strongly Hispanic areas, so that they are getting their say,” said Piercy.
Board President Brian O’Neal echoed Piercy’s support of the final map.
“With that map, you have widened it … you have increased the probability, I should say, of a Hispanic being selected in that area,” said O’Neal.
Montez wasn’t happy.
In follow-up comments to the board after the vote, his threats of a lawsuit grew stronger.
“We offered you an opportunity to avoid taking money from the classrooms. … Sadly, you turned us away,” said Montez.
“None of you ever asked: Was polarized voting ever mitigated?” he added. “We pleaded you. You denied us. … You know in your soul you sold us out.”
Smith said she appreciated the consultant’s in-person report, given that the written reports full of data charts were hard to follow.
“It was really difficult for me to take it in and process it and understand it,” said Smith.
Two board members — Piercy and Annemarie Randle-Trejo — live in what would be trustee District 5, meaning that one of them will likely move to District 2, where no current board members live.
Each trustee district would have an average of 77,000 residents, said demographer Larry Ferchaw.
The school district’s approach to voting districts contrasts sharply with the city of Anaheim’s, which spent more than $1 million defending a lawsuit seeking district voting.
After Montez raised concerns about the district’s compliance with the state Voting Rights Act, the school board commissioned a demographer’s study into the issue that ended up showing racially polarized voting in past elections.
After deciding in October to pursue single-member district elections, the board then turned to proposed maps from their consultant and the public.
The voting district map now goes to the Orange County Committee on School District Organization, an 11-member panel that reviews proposed boundaries.
Also on Thursday, the board officially requested a waiver from needing to place the question of district voting on the ballot before implementing it.
The waiver now goes to the state Board of Education, which is expected to rule on it in March.
Candidate filing starts in July, with the board election on Nov. 4.
By not showing maps of past election results by precinct, it’s difficult to tell whether the new map creates safe districts for the incumbent board members.