Palo Alto Unified has become the latest public entity to be hit with a threat of legal action alleging its at-large election system violates the California Voting Rights Act.
An Aug. 10 letter from attorney Alexander Tomescu of Laguna Niguel law firm Wewer & Lacy alleges Palo Alto school board elections are "racially polarized," making it more difficult for Latino and Asian voters to elect candidates or to influence elections.
The school board was set discuss the letter in closed session Tuesday night. Board President Ken Dauber did not announce in open session any reportable action related to this item.
Similar letters have gone out to school districts and cities across the state, with many moving to trustee-area or district-based elections in response to threatened or actual lawsuits. At-large elections give every voter the chance to vote for every candidate across the city, whereas trustee-area or district elections split the city into smaller districts and voters choose a candidate only from within their own district.
Locally, the City of Menlo Park adopted last year a district-based voting system after receiving a similar legal threat.
This summer, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle ruled that the City of Santa Clara's at-large election system discriminates against Asian-American residents. The city appealed the ruling in August.
Tomescu's letter, which the district received three weeks ago, notes that a Latino school board candidate lost in 2014 and a candidate of Asian descent lost in 2016. Tomescu does not identify the candidates, but Gina Dalma, who was born and raised in Mexico, ran and lost in 2014. In 2016, candidate Srinivasan Subramanian, who is of Indian descent, withdrew two months before the election.
Issues of "school segregation" and protecting the rights of minority students came up in both elections, Tomescu wrote, and continue to be present in the current election.
Tomescu also cites the "racially charged" debate over the proposal to rename one of two middle schools after Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese-American graduate of Palo Alto High School who shared a surname with an unrelated Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The proposal sparked friction between different racial groups in Palo Alto, with calls for the board to take a leadership role in addressing racism and discrimination in the school community.
"Online comments criticized the school board for its failure to consider the racially charged issue, with some comments specifically identifying 'how the school board is chosen' as a potential cause of the racial polarization," Tomescu wrote.
Palo Alto's student population is approximately 36.3 percent Asian and 12.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, according to 2017-18 district data.
The city of Palo Alto is 31 percent Asian and 7.1 percent Latino, according to 2016 American Community Survey data.
Tomescu urges the district to decide to voluntarily change its voting system before Sept. 24 to avoid legal action.
He notes that "in nearly all instances, district-based remedies have been imposed ... after great expense in the defense of the at-large voting method."