Lawsuit Alleges Natomas Unified School District has Violated California Voting Rights Act Timeline

Source: Natomas Unified School District

BY BRANDY TUZON BOYD
THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz

Updated Nov. 18, 2021

The Natomas Unified School District board of trustees voted 5-0 on Nov. 17, 2021 to approve by-trustee area map “F.” According to school district officials, the map will be forwarded to the County Committee on School District Organization for review and approval. Committee meetings are typically held at the end of Sacramento County Office of Education board of trustees meetings. Agendas

The Natomas Unified School District is being sued for violating the California Voting Rights Act, according to documents filed in Sacramento County Superior Court last week.

The district is currently scheduled to hold a public hearing later today and possibly approve a plan to change the way its school board is elected.

But a lawsuit filed late last week in Sacramento County Superior Court alleges the district has exceeded the time allowed to make the change under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The complaint also alleges two of three maps being considered at tonight’s meeting are gerrymandered around the homes of current school board members and calls into question whether a map will be approved in time for the November 2022 election.

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits the use of at-large elections if they impair the ability of a protected class, such as an ethnic or language minority group, from electing a candidate of its choice. It also allows voters who are members of a protected class to bring an action in superior court to enforce the law. The lawsuit was filed by attorney Scott Rafferty on behalf of three plaintiffs, who are all Natomas residents and members of protected classes, according to the complaint.

Currently, the five school board members are elected by all 48,090 registered voters who reside within the Natomas Unified district boundaries.

Earlier this year, the Natomas Unified school board started the process of moving from at-large elections to a by-trustee-area system.

Under the proposed by-trustee area system, the district would be divided into geographic areas, referred to as trustee areas. If approved, a board member who resides in each trustee area would be elected by only those registered voters who live in that specific geographic area. During the transition, current board members keep their spots until they are up for reelection. Two board members who are up for re-election in 2022 would be ineligible to run in two of the three maps being considered tonight.

This is at least the second time Natomas Unified has made plans to change the way board members are elected.

In 2011, the school board started taking steps toward making the shift to by-trustee area elections. The district hired a demographer and had a trustee-area map created, but decided in 2012 to wait and directed the superintendent to do more community education and outreach.

School board meeting minutes show the topic was not discussed again until a presentation on the the California Voting Rights Act was made to trustees in December 2020.

During that presentation attorney Michelle Cannon explained major roads, topography, streets or landmarks, communities or schools that define the neighborhood areas, could be used to create trustee area boundaries. She added that each area should have “roughly an equal population” and “can’t be gerrymandered.” Gerrymandering is when a voting district is created that helps a political group or hurts the group who is against them.

At that time, Cannon warned school board members that should Natomas Unified receive a demand letter saying the district is violating voters’ rights, the law specifies timelines to change how elections are done. For example, San Juan Unified is currently going through this process.

The Natomas Unified school board approved a resolution on Jan. 20, 2021 that five trustee areas would be created.

Trustee-area boundaries are meant to be determined in part using data from the 2020 U.S. Census as well as input from the public. According to a districtwide email and an all-call by the superintendent, the process for creating trustee-area boundaries started in July 2021 and was expected to take six months.

Since July, the district has asked its families to take several online surveys. One pre-map hearing was held on Aug.1 and a second hearing set for Sept. 1 was instead held on Sept. 14 when a school board meeting ended early due to safety concerns.

Originally, the district planned to adopt a trustee-area map at the Dec. 14 board meeting, but in an email sent to families earlier this month, the district moved up their timeline to this week’s meeting, citing potential legal action.

According to the lawsuit filed last week, passing the resolution in January 2021 started a 90-day clock during which the district was required to hold five public hearings and adopt a map with boundaries for trustee areas. That work, according to legal documents, should have been completed by April 20, 2021.

In a Nov. 1 letter to school board president Susan Heredia, Rafferty wrote, “Since the Board publicly passed its resolution of intent last January, your superintendent and attorney have repeatedly demanded extensions that would allow the District to postpone trustee areas until 2024.”

But in a statement sent to The Natomas Buzz, Superintendent Evans disputes Rafferty’s claim delaying the way the school district elects its board members is intentional.

“Why would NUSD ask to delay until 2024 when in 2020 the board gave direction and then in January 2021 approved a resolution to move forward for 2022?” Evans wrote. “Two-thirds of the maps presented do not allow (two) sitting Trustees to run until 2024. NUSD has, is, and will continue to take this By Trustee Area transition seriously.”

According to the complaint filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by Rafferty, after the April deadline passed, the school district asked for an extension and offered to “prepay reimbursement of attorneys’ fees.”

“To execute such an agreement without the required enforceable commitment to complete in 2022 would be inconsistent to plaintiffs’ counsel’s ethical obligation to his client and in violation of the statute,” court documents read.

But in Evans’s statement to The Natomas Buzz, the superintendent questioned Rafferty’s and his clients’ motives.

“Mr. Rafferty has demanded over $250,000 from other districts. His efforts aren’t about what is best for our community. They are about money,” Evans wrote. “NUSD will reshape its Governing Body to best serve Natomas and meet the legal requirements. And the community should know who is trying to wrestle money away from students when COVID has brought on so many needs.”

The lawsuit filed in Sacramento County Superior Court calls on the court to remedy the violation of the California Voting Rights Act by issuing a “permanent injunction against future at-large elections and an order specifying that Map E, which was broadly supported by the public, but submitted to the registrar for use until the next census.”

“They’ve broken too many commitments for my clients reasonably to believe that they will implement trustee areas without a court order. The deadline to complete the entire process passed in April,” said Rafferty in a statement to The Natomas Buzz on Tuesday. “It is up to the court to approve the map now. We don’t intend a repeat of 2011.”

The school board meeting starts today at 5:30 p.m. Members of the public may attend the meeting in-person at the Natomas Unified School District office, located at 1901 Arena Blvd, or watch the live stream online by clicking here. Public comment may be made in person during the meeting or by submitting an eComment to [email protected]. To view the meeting agenda, click here.


You might also be interested in:
Natomas Unified Transition to By-Trustee Area Elections website
• Natomas Unified School Board meeting minutes for Sept. 14, 2011, Sept. 27, 2011, Dec. 11, 2011, March 14, 2012 and April 11, 2012
Meeting Tonight On Proposed Changes To School Board Elections (March 22, 2012)
Natomas School Board Trustee Areas Topic Of Meeting Tonight (March 28, 2012)

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