The last WCCUSD (West Contra Costa Unified School District) election was a dramatic demonstration of the power of a huge focused amount of money on a school board election. This money came from a collection of construction interests (union and business) into the hands of two candidates who shared the same organization around the same consultant…and who won. (OK, one of them won by 66 votes, but that’s still winning.) As a side-effect of this, 3 people from a small area in the El Cerrito Hills who tend to work together have a majority on the school board.
What Can Be Done about This
I guess you could just accept this as being democracy in action, but I think most people who don’t have a vested interest in the current ruling majority on the Board would regard the kind of imbalance produced by this situation to be democracy in form only. If you think this situation calls for reform, there are some immediate potential solutions that present themselves:
- Term Limits
- Campaign Contribution Limits
Unfortunately term limits doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It just changes the cast. Contribution limits, on the other hand, would require State action within the confines of what the courts would permit. You could try locally to pass some kind of non-binding resolution to get candidates to agree to spend no more than $X, but then what should be $X be and it’s still non-binding.
The Better Solution: Ward Elections
One immediate way to get at the big money influence on School Board elections is to reduce the scope of the campaign for each candidate. By breaking up the district into electoral wards, the cost to mount a credible campaign is significantly reduced and the effectiveness of the marketing bought by large amounts of money is lessened because of the more neighborhood nature of campaigns in such smaller wards.
As a side-effect, this would satisfy some of the feelings that many have had that the District is too big and should be broken up. Ward elections would essentially create mini-districts within the District without having to overcome the almost impossible hurdle of formally breaking up a District.
Getting to Ward Elections
The manual for school district organization can be found at:
The chapter of interest is chapter 10. In our county, the County Committee on School District Organization is the same as the County Board of Education. There are three possible bases of representation:
- Elected-At-Large Trustees
- Elected-by-Ward (District) Trustees Who Must Reside in the Ward
- Elected-by-Ward (District) Trustees Who Can Reside Anywhere in the District
There are two basic approaches to changing from at-large representation to one of the other forms:
- County Committee Puts It on the Ballot
10% Petition Puts It on the Ballot
- County committee receives request or initiates action to create or abolish trustee areas. [Ed. Code (EC) 5019]
- County committee calls and conducts at least one public hearing in the district on the matter. (EC 5019)
- At the conclusion of the hearing, the county committee approves or disapproves the proposal. The approval of the proposal constitutes an order of election. (EC 5020)
- Proposal is placed on the ballot not later than the next succeeding election for members of the governing board. [EC 5020(a)]
- If a majority of those voting approve the establishment or abolishment of trustee areas, any affected board member serves out his or her term, and succeeding board members are elected according to the selected method. (EC 5021)
- Petition is filed containing at least 10 percent of the signatures of the district’s registered voters proposing to create or abolish trustee areas. [EC 5020(c)]
- Prior to placing the issue on the ballot, the county committee may call and conduct one or more public hearings on the matter. [EC 5020(c)]
- Proposal is placed on the ballot at the next succeeding regularly scheduled election, the next succeeding statewide primary or general election, or the next succeeding regularly scheduled election at which the electors of the district are otherwise entitled to vote, provided that there is sufficient time to place the issue on the ballot. [EC 5020(c)]
- If a majority of those voting approve the establishment/abolishment of trustee areas, any affected board member serves out his/her term and succeeding board members are elected according to the selected method. (EC 5021)