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The San Mateo Union High School District is the newest adopter of by-district elections, as education officials agreed to take on the new election format sweeping across the county.

The district Board of Trustees unanimously agreed Thursday, Feb. 25, to abandon the at-large election system after receiving a lawsuit threatening to force the overhaul.

The decision makes the high school district the most recent in a gradual evolution across the Peninsula among cities, school systems and other public agencies that made similar decisions.

In the high school district, trustees generally favored the benefits offered by the new system, while taking time to raise concerns with other consequences related to the transition.

For her part, Trustee Linda Lees Dwyer said she supported the new system as a means of assuring more equitable representation, but she balanced that perspective against concerns relating to the costs of facilitating the shift.

“I feel that it is really wrong to take money out of public education and use it that way,” she said. “That really disturbs me.”

In laying the groundwork for ultimately adopting a map identifying boundaries where trustees must live to run for office, the district will need to hire a demographer and other consultants managing the logistics of the transition.

And while other trustees scoffed at the costs associated with the move, they acknowledged that would be cheaper than attempting to defend the district’s existing election format in the courtroom.

The district received a letter from attorney Kevin Shenkman insisting officials adopt the new election format or face a lawsuit compelling the shift, under the state’s voting rights act.

An attorney hired by the district noted that no public agency has successfully defended its interest in preserving an at-large system, and the costs associated with the legal battle can range into the millions of dollars.

Advocates claim the district system is a more inclusive format because 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.

Trustee Ligia Andrade Zuniga said she felt the new system would yield more participation from candidates in parts of the district that historically have been underrepresented.

“I just feel like there has to be some more equity,” she said, while also acknowledging concerns regarding the cost of the move.

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.

Board Vice President Peter Hanley and Trustee Greg Land both shared those concerns, and urged officials to continue thinking holistically about the entire district after the shift.

To address fears regarding officials solely advocating for their district’s interests, trustees said any map ultimately adopted should draw boundary lines that are not defined solely according to high school campus proximity.

Looking ahead, officials expect a demographer will begin a public outreach process collecting input before crafting a series of potential maps from which officials will pick their preferred candidate.

The first by-district election in the school system will be 2022. The high school district joins the San Mateo County Community College District, the Sequoia Union High School District, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and a bevvy of local city councils as public agencies that have shifted to the by-district model.

Regarding the costs related to the shift as well as the pursuit of a more equitable model, board President Robert Griffin urged his colleagues to make the most of an imperfect situation.

“We ought to see what we can do to make the situation better,” he said.

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