Former school board member calls changing to district elections a step backwards
By André Coleman 05/03/2012
Bill “Bib” Bibbiani, who served as a top Pasadena Unified School District administrator decades before being elected to the Board of Education for a four-year term in 2003, doesn’t much care for the way people may soon be asked to elect board members.
In fact, Bibbiani so dislikes the idea of going from at-large elections for the board’s seven members to district-only contests that he wrote the argument against Measure A, a proposal on the June 5 Primary Election ballot that would mandate that switch.
If approved, Measure A would allow registered voters in Altadena, Pasadena and Sierra Madre — the three communities that make up PUSD — to cast ballots only for candidates running in one of seven designated districts, devised over the past year by a special citizens’ task force.
Board of Education members have already approved maps dividing the district into seven geographic areas. With voter approval next month, those maps would be in effect for elections in 2013.
“This is a step backwards,” said Bibbiani, who recalls a time when the district was racially segregated. Bibbiani also remembers the lawsuit that forced integration of the district in the early 1970s.
“The district was on the wrong side of the racial issue in the 1950s and ’60s and has done its best to be on the right side of the issue over the past 40 years,” he said. “In the 1970s, the district was forced to integrate, and now we are being forced to divide.”
While some agree that the recent attempts at districting will do little to increase voter participation by Latinos — the district’s largest segment of students — others say it will make the board more accountable to constituents and make it more affordable for people to run for office.
“It would allow more people to run,” said Pasadena Youth Center Executive Director Stella Murga, who was among a majority of people to speak in favor of Measure A at an April 23 school board meeting on the new district maps.
“It allows for greater access to those representatives and accountability, and it would be less expensive for people to run,” Murga added. “There will be greater opportunities all around for representation. I think it would encourage more minorities to run and to vote.”
Redistricting Task Force Chair Ken Chawkins told the Weekly the group considered several factors other than race in drawing the map.
“This is not the ’70s,” Chawkins told the Weekly. “We have a very complicated community in the PUSD, with many communities of interest, not just ethnic communities.
“We were asked to draw a map which would give voice to communities of interest, for example, socio-economic communities, geographic communities and ethnic communities. This is not all about race,” said Chawkins, a training manager for Southern California Edison.
According to newly drawn maps, each district would have about 29,000 residents. West Altadena would make up 97 percent of one district, which has a large African-American population, and East Altadena, which contains the district’s largest Armenian-American population, would comprise 52 percent of another district. African Americans and Latinos would make up the majority of the population in at least three districts.
“I don’t think it will create diversity as far as Latinos running for school board,” said Muir High School PTA Treasurer Sole Teramae. “There are not enough Latinos who are registered to vote in the area. We are not going to increase the [number of] Latino candidates.”
Sierra Madre does not have enough people to qualify for its own district. Residents there would vote alongside residents of East Pasadena and a small, unincorporated portion of Pasadena, according to the maps.
The changes are designed to provide more minority inclusion in elections and are being considered in order to stave off potential lawsuits that might be filed under the California Voting Rights Act of 2000, which prohibits “racially polarized” elections that impair the election of minorities.
Despite being a district made up of largely Latino and African-American students, five of the seven Pasadena Board of Education members are white. School board member Ramon Miramontes is the district’s lone Latino board member, and Renatta Cooper is its only African American.
The new maps could pit several board members against each other and leave Board member Kim Kenne in an especially perilous situation. Kenne would be placed in the West Altadena district along with Miramontes. If Kenne wants a second term, she would have to run against Miramontes, a board ally, in 2013 — a full two years before her first term expires.
If she does not run, she can remain on the board until her at-large term is up in 2015. But she would be forced to step down after her first term if someone else in that district were elected.
“I can see the attraction of representing 29,000 people, as opposed to 210,000 people, and having a more direct relationship with my constituents,” Kenne told the Weekly. “I don’t see an issue with people becoming very territorial and not representing the entire district. I am more in favor of this map for Altadena. I am waiting to see how this will play out in June. If the voters don’t vote for it, it is all a moot point. Obviously, it would be nice not to have to run two years after the last election.”
Miramontes has lobbied to have those lines redrawn so that district would include more voters. However, to do that would effectively dilute the number of minorities in surrounding districts.
Also next year, Board members Elizabeth Pomeroy and Ed Honowitz, who live in the same district, would be forced to square off. Cooper would be forced to run against Tom Selinske in 2015.
“We didn’t draw the maps to ensure incumbency, but to ensure thorough representation by the various communities in PUSD,” said Chawkins. “It is not a step backward. In fact that is why the California Voting Rights Act is encouraging school districts around the state. Frankly, it is a progressive move to increase representation.”
But, according to Bibbiani, changing the election process will erase the progress made by the district in 1970, after a federal civil rights lawsuit resulted in PUSD becoming the first school district west of the Mississippi River to implement court-ordered busing in a move to integrate schools.
Bibbiani believes switching to a system that allows voters to cast ballots for just one candidate will allow other board members to ignore the complaints of parents from outside of their geographic areas.
“In the guise of helping minorities or allegedly reducing inequality, this race-based division will harm everyone’s right to vote and right to influence the board of education,” Bibbiani said.
“Right now, every voter has the power to impact the power on the board every two years,” Bibbiani said. “If we change one person every four years, the other board members will have no reason to pick up the phone when you call, because you are not their constituent. The margin of victory is seldom more than four or five percent. That gives people significant power.
“The fact is, people are empowered by this [current] system to get their act together,” Bibbiani said. “This will diminish the power of voters. It will make a mockery of democratic power.” n