Orange County’s second-largest school system that’s had one elected leader at the helm for more than two decades now wants to see if new trustees can better reflect its 24-square mile community of bilingual students and working families.
Currently, Santa Ana Unified School District officials are gathering public input on slicing the district’s population into different wards, each of which could elect their own representative on the district’s Board of Trustees as opposed to voting them into power at large.
The changes are getting worked out as the district grapples with steadily declining enrollment, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on student learning, households’ lack of access to digital devices and the internet, and an ongoing teacher compensation crisis, among other things.
The changes also mean the district is holding four public hearings to gather input from families within its boundaries, from October through December. One already happened on Monday. Here’s more information on the rest.
Board members voted to move forward with the idea on Aug. 10. The plan is for the district map and voting system, whatever it looks like once approved, to take effect by the November 2022 election.
There’s the complaint that most trustees live in north Santa Ana.
And that the board needs term limits.
One trustee, John Palacio, has held office on the board since 1998.
He told Voice of OC during a Tuesday interview that he would support a term limits policy:
“We’re waiting on the board majority to put that on the agenda.”
On the switch to district elections? Not so much, he said.
One reason being district voting in the U.S. is often aimed at enfranchising what are often disenfranchised non-white communities.
Since the late 1990s, Palacio said, the panel has seen a consistently large Latino presence due to the district serving a largely Latino-dominant region of central Orange County.
Thus, Palacio argues, Latinos aren’t exactly underrepresented in policymaking. Two percent of the district’s students are Asian, 96% are Latino, and the rest are counted as “other” in one district fact sheet for this year.
Palacio also questioned whether districts would change anything or give residents a “more responsive government” because, he argues, the system would incentivize trustees to be more concerned with their own representative areas:
“Santa Ana Unified is too small (in area) to do that.”
Proponents of district elections point out that not every area of the district is the same.
“Some areas are more dense. Some areas have more apartments. Some areas have more or less green space. There are different needs in the city that can be highlighted or recognized with a little more urgency when you have a board member in that area,” said Trustee Carolyn Torres during an Aug. 10 meeting.
Torres also disputed that day the notion trustees would consider themselves more beholden to their own wards: “All the schools interact with each other … That would be pretty impossible to do.”
Running for office also “takes a lot of resources and political connections that everyday parents don’t have,” Torres said, calling the district system a “more democratic system for folks who come from the neighborhood to have a more narrow area that they outreach to in order to get elected.”
Torres, in a Tuesday interview months after the meeting, also said that while district leadership hasn’t lacked Latino representation, and other groups currently fall in the minority amongst the student population, “you can’t anticipate what will happen in the future.”
“The Asian population is currently under 10 percent, but we don’t know if that’s going to change,” Torres said.” The maps will be updated with every new census count. So if change does happen, the district can adjust its wards accordingly.
Officials say they’ll draw the maps in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, and that each ward will have to have an equal number of inhabitants.
The district’s been around for a number of modern education debates around issues like public school funding and student achievement and has been no stranger to the charter-versus-public school debate.
In 2019, the district made a public charge against its own authorized charter schools, saying some weren’t paying their fair share into “special education services for students with disabilities residing in Santa Ana.”
At least 87% of the district’s students fell under the California School Dashboard’s “Socioeconomically Disadvantaged” category in 2020, and 81% currently qualify for free lunch.
The digital divide among students across the district was serious enough to prompt a “WiFi on Wheels” program during the Covid-19 pandemic, where officials deployed school buses and vans throughout the City of Santa offering mobile, 5G WiFi access points.
And as a debate over teaching ethnic studies in public schools rages across the country, Santa Ana Unified took action last year to establish the course as a high school graduation requirement.
There are also lingering questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted student learning when kids logged onto class via video conferencing. Santa Ana Unified was a notable remote-learning stronghold, due to the virus’ disproportionate impacts on the surrounding community, well through 2021.
Meanwhile, there’s been a crisis of stalled checks for teachers: In September, it was reported that more than 100 Santa Ana Unified teachers and other workers had gone without pay for at least a month, drawing questions about the district’s management.
“In spite of assurances by district staff, we still have employees not made whole,” Palacio said on Tuesday.
A district spokesperson, Fermin Leal, didn’t respond to questions about that issue late Tuesday.
For years, the district’s students have steadily declined in number.
The district saw more than 56,000 K-12 students enrolled during the 2014-15 school year. That number was down to 46,500 by the 2020-21 school year.
But the decline has been going on for longer than that.
Palacio attributes that to factors like the rising cost of living in Southern California, among other things. He also voiced concern about teachers retiring or leaving the district — but from a bird’s eye view, he worries about the district losing “institutional memory.”
Whether district-based voting helps or hurts in that regard remains to be seen.
“That — the institutional memory — is very important in a school district, having some sense of the history of how the district operates in getting a proper sense of what the needs of students are,” Palacio said.
There may also be concerns and looming issues among parents and district stakeholders that “we’re not aware of,” Torres said. “It’s pretty complicated to pinpoint where all the needs are and how to prioritize them.”
“I think the ward elections help with that,” Torres said. “It makes residents more easily able to access the decision-makers, and there may be concerns we’re not aware of which then get pushed to the forefront.”