January 13, 2011 | Pasadena Star-News | Original Article

PUSD must change its elections to elect more Latinos

PASADENA - Facing the threat of a lawsuit, the Pasadena Unified School District must change its election process to include more Latinos on its board, according to school board members.

Despite Latinos accounting for 55 percent of the students attending the PUSD, Ramon Miramontes is the lone Latino on the seven-member school board. The lack of proportionate representation on the board could expose the PUSD to a lawsuit, said Renatta Cooper, PUSD board member.

"Given the demographics in the district, Latinos are under-represented on the board, she said. "That's the place where we can be sued."

Changing the voting process requires amending the city charter and ballot approval by Pasadena residents, which has pulled the City Council into the fray. During its Monday meeting, the City Council passed a resolution to form a task force charged with drawing district boundaries and moving the issue to the ballot by March 2012.

No task force has yet been formed, officials are still sorting out who will pay for it - the city or the school district, PUSD board member Scott Phelps said.

Some school board members are not sure that district elections would give minorities a stronger voice on the PUSD board.

"I don't think this automatically is going to have the outcome of putting more minorities on the school board," Miramontes said. "We have a higher rate of families that send their kids to private school and the vast majority of our students are concentrated in a few areas."

Unlike the other school districts that have shifted to area-based voting districts for selecting board members, Pasadena Unified's student body - which also draws from Sierra Madre and Altadena - doesn't match the general population.

Blacks and Latinos account for 76 percent of the Pasadena Unified's student population, according to the district census from 2009. Blacks and Latinos makeup 46 percent of the city of Pasadena's population and less than 15 percent of the population in Sierra Madre, according to each city's website. Black and Latinos account for 50 percent of the residents in Altadena, according to census data updates in 2008.

And the Northwest serves as home to the majority of Pasadena Unified's students, while areas such as the Arroyo Seco and Madison Heights are under-represented among the PUSD student body, Phelps said.

"In Pasadena it won't work, you'll end up with people from, neighborhoods that traditionally don't use the district on the board," he said. "It may be more effective to have an at-large system where candidates must appeal to a broad base of voters from across the district."

Recent election history in Pasadena points to mixed results when district boundaries are drawn to accommodate minority interests, Phelps said.

"(Pasadena City Councilman) Victor Gordo's Council District (District 5) was carved out of another district to create Latino representation and a white person was elected, Bill Crowfoot," he said.

Gordo served as Crowfoot's field representative after the formation of the district in 1997 and was elected to the City Council in 2001.

While no lawsuits have been filed against the PUSD, school officials are aware of a suit filed and won by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. The minority rights advocacy group won a suit against the Merced School District for not having a proportionate number of Latinos on the school board, Miramontes said.

A representative from the Lawyers Committee attended a Pasadena meeting of League of United Latin American Citizens and told the group that the PUSD was vulnerable to a lawsuit based on disproportionate Latino representation, said Miramontes, who is also a member of LULAC.

Despite race being a crucial element in suits that force school boards to change their election systems, Pasadena City Councilman Victor Gordo down-played the importance of race and ethnicity in district-based elections.

"The issue from my perspective and the people I represent is not race, the issue is representation," he said. "People want someone they relate to who lives around their neighborhood. That doesn't involve race."

Gordo added that district elections will bring more accountability to school politics and "would bring about a closer and clearer line of communication between the constituents and their representative."

However, pulling in representatives from the Arroyo, Madison Heights and neighborhoods that rarely use or participate in PUSD or its politics could make the political body more dysfunctional, Miramontes said. The key will be in the makeup of the city task force to draw the district boundaries.

"The real question is whether this new electoral change benefits people of color in Pasadena by giving them more of a voice in Pasadena and does it benefit those who send their kids to Pasadena," Miramontes said. "It all depends on who runs that commission and how they draw the map."

The change may also do little to satiate the desire by some in Altadena to secede from the PUSD. A secession movement was reignited during the fall of 2010.

"People think the Altadena and Sierra Madre get their own seats, but that's not the case," he said. "Altadena and Sierra Madre could be lumped into district that include other portions of Pasadena."

Pasadena Unified last considered a trustee area election system in 2001, Phelps said. A task force was formed and voter district lines were drawn. However, the measure was defeated at the ballot as Pasadena voters didn't support the change in the school board election system, Phelps said.

Perhaps repeating history would serve Pasadena well this time around, Phelps said. Pasadena Unified might not have to adopt district elections, but simply put it to a vote and hope the people don't pass the amendment.

"If we do these things and show due diligence, we have been told that we are more limited in our (legal) exposure," said Phelps.