An intense debate flared up Tuesday over what Orange County’s Board of Education members will look like in the future.

Despite a Monday OC Superior Court Judge’s order, board members on Tuesday afternoon voted 4-1 to send their own election map to the county Registrar of Voters – hours after county supervisors narrowly voted to back them.

At the heart of the issue is whether or not the Board of Education can draw their own election maps instead of the County Committee for School District Organization – a state-created committee tasked with overseeing the redistricting process for school districts throughout Orange County. 

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It comes as an ongoing debate on how the Orange County’s Board of Education districts are drawn, with members clashing with the county committee over the proposed election maps. – even filing a lawsuit against the panel.

Under a Monday ruling from Judge David Hoffer, the OC Board of Education’s request for a quick ruling was denied, stating that power rested with the county committee to make the final decision on what election map would be handed over to the OC Registrar of Voters until the court had a chance to review the issue further in May.  

“Barring any other court decision I’m moving forward with the county committee map,” county Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said in an interview with Voice of OC.

But OC Board of Education members voted 4-1 Tuesday on a resolution to send their election map to the registrar anyway, with Trustee Beckie Gomez dissenting.

The OC Board of Education is up for election June 7 and the maps could make a key difference in who serves on the county panel – which oversees charter school applications and the county Department of Education’s budget.

The map dispute also comes at a turbulent time for the county registrar’s office, the chief elections administrators for the county, as longtime registrar Kelley is set to retire next month, making this one of his last major decisions at the post. 

[Read: OC’s Longtime Elections Chief Neal Kelley is Retiring]

On Tuesday morning, Orange County Board of Supervisors weighed in on the issue, as Supervisors Don Wagner and Lisa Bartlett called on their colleagues to jump into the fight. 

Supervisors narrowly adopted a resolution on a 3-2 vote in support of the county’s board of education being able to draw up and decide their own map.

The supervisors voted along party lines with the three Republican supervisors voting in favor of the resolution, while the two Democrats, Supervisors Doug Chaffee and Katrina Foley, voted against it.

Supervisor Don Wagner, who brought forth the resolution along with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, said no one heard of the committee because they usually just make sure maps are drawn in accordance with law.

“What it ended up doing here this time though is going way outside of its historical purview. And it redrew the maps completely but it did so in a way that is troubling in large numbers.”

Supervisor Don Wagner

Wagner also said the resolution was about clarifying a resolution passed in 1977 by the board of supervisors designating functions of the county’s board of education.

While the county school board members adopted their map on Dec. 8, dubbed Map 5, they failed to get it past the County Committee for School District Organization – a state-created committee tasked with overseeing the redistricting process for school districts throughout Orange County. 

According to data provided in a Board of Education staff report, the map approved by board members heavily favors white registered voters, who are the largest voting block in 4 of the 5 districts, despite only representing 38% of the county’s population.  

To see the map approved by the board, click here

The committee instead tossed out the board’s map and picked a new one, designated map 9b-V2, which was a radical departure from the board’s map, dramatically expanding the size of election districts 1, 2 and 3 at the expense of 4 and 5. 

But the committee hasn’t provided a clear demographic breakdown of the map.

The exact breakdown on the ethnic groups are less clear for the committee’s map, which lists only the percentage of Latino, Asian and Black voters, with the rest included under one category as “Other,” which held a majority of voters in three of the five proposed districts. 

The county commission map also split up the Asian population throughout Orange County, creating only two districts where the percentage of Asian voters matched or exceeded their percentage of the population – a point of contention for many residents during public comment at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting. 

To see the map approved by the committee, click here

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That map was initially created by Billie Joe Wright, president of the Hacienda La Puente Teachers Association and a former candidate for the Anaheim Elementary School board.

Jeffrey Riel, the attorney for the County’s Department of Education as well as the committee, told Supervisors the map drawing authority lies with the committee.

“Clearly the court was indicating that the authority here rests with the county committee on school district organization to readjust the boundaries,” Riel told Supervisors during Tuesday’s public comment.

“There’s no legal authority provided to the Orange County Board of Education for this process.”

While it looks like the committee will have final say over how the board will carve out their boundaries for the next election, anything past that is still up in the air. 

The lawsuit will continue, with litigation set to resume in May, which could result in a shift to the maps for future elections. 

Supervisor Katrina Foley criticized the resolution, saying it provided no concrete action and that the board of supervisors had no authority over the matter – especially given Monday’s court ruling.

She also called it a “slippery slope.”

“Are we going to weigh in on how every city and special district … decides to create their maps? I don’t think that would be appropriate,” Foley said. “To me this just feels like politics.” 

The committee created by the state legislature and members are appointed by local boards of education, according to the committee’s webpage.

There are 11 people currently serving on the committee including current local board of education trustees like Karin Freeman from Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District and Meg Cutuli from the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

Dozens of residents at the board of supervisors meeting criticized that panel, saying it lacked diversity and was pushing a political agenda by remapping the districts in a way that diluted Little Saigon. 

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Last month, the board of education sued that committee in Orange County Superior Court, arguing that the committee missed the deadline and tried to do the redistricting process themselves rather than make adjustments if necessary.

Jade Ausmus, a registered voter looking to run for a seat on the county’s board of education in the next election, also joined the lawsuit against the committee.

“The County Committee’s legal violations, which are ongoing, have caused irreparable and continuing harm to the Board, to Ausmus, and the voters of Orange County,” reads the petition. 

The petition goes on to say the committee “embarked on an independent, secretive, and unlawful redistricting process to achieve partisan electoral objectives regarding the Orange County Board of Education, including the removal and elimination of Board incumbents.”

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In response to the suit, the county committee said the board majority was only fighting them because they didn’t like the map that was selected. 

“The County Committee’s map is not being challenged on a claim that it violates the California Constitution, federal Constitution, or the federal Voting Rights Act,” the committee wrote to Judge David Hoffer. “Rather, the petitioners in this case … do not like the map that was adopted by the County Committee and would prefer their own.” 

The committee also argued they were the only body empowered by state law to make the final decision on the 2022 redistricting plan, regardless of how the board votes. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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