Last night was the second in a series of meetings being held to get the community’s input on the three options for new trustee area boundaries.

The meeting was held in the lecture hall at CdM High and was attended by about 12 people. If we subtract five people who were there as part of a growing group of concerned taxpayers and at least two members of the citizen committee that helped create the three new options, there were really so few people that it raised other issues:

  • Are these meetings being communicated properly?
  • Are they being scheduled at the right times and days to maximize attendance?
  • Will the low attendance void the fulfillment of the district’s requirement to conduct them?

To that last point, I am not familiar with the details of the requirement to hold meetings, but it seems to me that if the meetings are announced and so few people show up, it may not meet the criteria for a qualified meeting.

The concept of a meeting has changed, too. This morning, I attended a meeting online. There were people in attendance from two locations in the country and it lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve attended many such meetings, as have, I suppose, many readers. They are efficient and effective. Perhaps this virtual meeting is something the district should consider as an additional option to boost community awareness of these important changes.

And they are important – perhaps the most important changes in the district in the 30 years I have been a resident. For all of the emphasis on getting our kids proficient in the latest technology to help them compete in the “global economy,” it seems to me that the decision-makers should do as they say and try the virtual meeting option. In this case, it’s easy to do.

At the meeting, there was a mention of the 2001’s California Voting Rights Act as the catalyst for the Area change process we are now seeing. This came up when one attendee wondered why it took over 50 years to do here – a reference to the federal version which was approved in 1965.

The federal version has the same provision as the state version. Specifically, the federal version reads:

“Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities.”

The perception of discrimination against Costa Mesa’s Westside Latino population is a massive part of why the district is facing the legal challenges over boundaries and trustee composition. Despite a large Latino student population in the district, there has never been a Latino member on the school board.

The federal law of 50 years ago dictates what the district is now doing. So this parsing over whether it has taken 50 years or 16 is nothing more than a distraction. And besides, even if we use the California standard as a benchmark, that’s still 16 years of district foot-dragging that has cost taxpayers a lot of money – to start, about $100,000 just to get the new Area map process completed.

According to a knowledgeable source, had the district used the demographics firm used recently by the city of Costa Mesa, the cost would have been in the neighborhood of $25,000 “for a school district.”

Once again, the attorney who initiated this process was portrayed as the bad guy, the scapegoat. “The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) is pretty clear,” said the superintendent last night. We didn’t need a lawsuit to know [the rules].”

That’s true: The district did not need a lawsuit to know the rules by which they should be playing. But they did need a lawsuit to do something about it.

The superintendent wanted all (net) 7 or 8 people in attendance that the district was a willing participant in this process. “We moved forward because we saw a trend happening,” he said last night. What he doesn’t understand is that regardless of whether he wants to be portrayed as a hero who stepped in a got the ball rolling, it was still the threat of legal action that finally moved the needle. This should have happened 16 years ago when the CVRA was enacted, or 51 years ago when the unified district was created, or 52 years ago when the federal Voting Rights Act was signed, and it should not have taken a lawsuit or even the observation of a trend before things changed.

There was a significant change from Wednesday night’s presentation in Costa Mesa. Last night, attendees were given printed copies of the presentation to help them read the tiny demographic information that was shown on the screen. Oh, and there were two attorneys present, not one.

Last night, for some wrong reason, the four large easels presenting the four districts maps – one current, three new – were divided up. Two were placed on one side of the large lecture hall and two on the other side. Not exactly easy to navigate. It was a moot point because we were given hard copies but one has to wonder why they were divided.

To his credit, the superintendent attended both meetings.

The bigger issue

Redrawing Area boundaries and ditching the at-large election process are important steps. But the remaining hurdle to accurate representation is to make trustee positions full-time and start paying school board members a living wage. Until that happens, the many people in this and other districts around the state will be deprived of the involvement of good, bright people who would like to make valuable contributions to their school districts but are prohibited because they cannot quit their jobs to hold a school board job with peanuts for compensation.

This change would also go a long way toward reducing the rubber stamping and total dependence on staff recommendations for decisions. In the N-MUSD, the tail wags the dog and it has been that way for a very long time.

The compensation issue, however, is one that must be decided in Sacramento.

Next up

There will be more meetings, more chin scratching and more concerned looks from people who say they care about community input but who are really doing all this because if they don’t, they might get sued.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD