Daily Journal local education generic logo

San Mateo Union High School District officials will consider adopting district elections under threat of a lawsuit potentially forcing the school system to give up its existing at-large system.

The San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees will weigh Thursday, Feb. 25, a recommendation to begin overhauling the process by which school board members are elected.

The discussion arrives in the wake of officials last month receiving a letter alleging the district is violating state voting law by preserving its existing system awarding elections to the highest vote getters in general elections.

Acknowledging the legal challenges associated with defending the status quo, school board President Robert Griffin said it appears as if the shift to district elections is inevitable.

“It seems to be the direction that everyone is going,” he said. “And we are going to abide by the law. We have to.”

As it stands, candidates who receive the most votes in a districtwide election are awarded seats on the school board. Under the by-district system, officials would approve an electoral map dividing the districts into wards, where candidates must live and seek support from voters within those borders.

Advocates claim it is a more inclusive system for electing local officials, as residents are more easily able to support those who they feel represent their specific community’s interest. Campaigns for smaller areas are also often less expensive to run, lowering the burden for candidate participation.

Critics of the by-district system often claim it promotes balkanization and encourages elected officials to only defend the interest of their constituency, rather than the entire community.

Those perspectives are frequently balanced against recognition that state law heavily favors the by-district system, and that the effort to defend an at-large election can lead to costly and difficult legal battles.

Rather than risk a considerable sum attempting to defend a challenging position, city officials across the Peninsula have taken to adopting the by-district system. To that end, South San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and Redwood City officials along with the Sequoia Union High and Redwood City Elementary school districts and county Board of Supervisors are among those which elected to forgo the courtroom in favor of abandoning the at-large system.

Meanwhile, Burlingame city officials recently agreed to adopt the district system after receiving a lawsuit threat from Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who is known to aggressively push for legal fees when agencies challenge his position.

For his part, Griffin said the high school board is obligated to protect taxpayer money and said it would not be wise to put public funds at risk by engaging in a potential court battle that could be difficult for the district to win.

And even though the board’s composition has grown more diverse over recent elections, Griffin acknowledged defending the status quo can be especially difficult for agencies facing legal challenges.

More broadly, Griffin said he favors adopting the shift if it improves the district’s governance format.

“We’ll go through the process and make the best out of it and we’ll come out on the other end better than we started,” he said.

Recommended for you

(3) comments


I find it frustrating that articles like this fail to even mention that Proportional Representation is an option.

The supposed point of moving to districts is because in the at-large system, a 51% majority can elect all of the seats as a slate, running rough-shod over the minority.

Well, under a districted system, if the 51% majority is well-distributed, they can _still_ win all of the seats.

A system designed for proportionality will _allow_ a candidate to win based on a geographic appeal -- if you have very deep support from a historically un-represented area, you can win based on that support. But you don't _have_ to. You just need _some_ coalition that provides a sufficient proportion of votes.

Proportional Representation actually meets the goals of the California Voting Rights Act -- the law in which the type of lawsuit driving this change for SMUHD is based -- _better_ than districting. But the courts have already ruled districts to be a safe harbor, so that's what everyone's doing. If they adopted PR, they might have to litigate the issue, and while it seems like they ought to win, nobody wants to take the risk

Patrick Henry

District Elections for schools? I must thank God once again for Catholic schools that allow me to skip the entire public school fiasco that now with the possibility of district elections looks to being going right into the toilet. Get ready for more ethnic studies, classes on why it is OK to hate Republicans and the teaching of the horrors of being an American in the United States. My sincere condolences for those parents who are stuck in our public schools, they are doing your child a disservice and they are being brainwashed. Out is reading, writing and arithmetic and in is How Being White in America is a bad thing, teaching our young and impressionable that you are neither a boy or a girl and finally, math is racist and so is the Republican Party. Nothing like district elections to make our public schools even worst than they are today. Race to the bottom at incredible speeds. Geronimo!!!!

Tommy Tee

Conway--please seek professional help.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for visiting the Daily Journal.

Please purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading. To continue, please log in, or sign up for a new account.

We offer one free story view per month. If you register for an account, you will get two additional story views. After those three total views, we ask that you support us with a subscription.

A subscription to our digital content is so much more than just access to our valuable content. It means you’re helping to support a local community institution that has, from its very start, supported the betterment of our society. Thank you very much!