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CUSD sets timeline for district-based board member elections

The Claremont City Council isn’t the only legislative body in town making the switch to district-based elections.

The Claremont Unified School District Board of Education voted on December 20, 2018 to initiate a transition to by-trustee districts. The reasoning behind the move is similar to the city council—the district doesn’t want to receive a demand letter from an attorney that would result in fees estimated at $30,000.

“We just decided to be proactive and pass the resolution that we were going to proceed,” CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser said in a phone interview. “Once you pass the resolution—we passed it on December 20—if you get that demand letter, you’re in a safe harbor period.”

But there’s one big difference—the timeline. The board won’t initiate the transition until 2021, just in time for the 2022 election. The safe harbor period, Mr. Elsasser said, keeps the district safe from a demand letter until after the new census data is released in 2021.

If the district were to switch in time for the 2020 election, they would have to redraw the maps for the next election two years later.

“The law isn’t specific,” Mr. Elsasser said. “Our attorneys interpreted it as long as we passed the resolution and stated in the timeline, we believe we are in the safe harbor until we make the change in 2022.”

This is in contrast to the city’s current process, where it is following a 90-day period to hold several public meetings and decide on how to map out five districts in time for the 2020 election. The 90-day process began when the city passed its resolution of intent on November 24, 2018.

Like the city, the CUSD has not yet received a formal demand letter notifying them they are in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). As long as the district didn’t receive a demand letter, Mr. Elsasser explained, it is not subject to a 90-day transitional period.

“They can still send us a demand letter, but we don’t have to pay them that $30,000,” Mr. Elsasser said. “If we get a demand letter that says we want you to do it sooner, that would be something we have to look at, but what we’re immune from is having to pay someone who sends us a demand letter.”

Shawna McKee of Atkinson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, CUSD’s legal counsel, did not respond to a request for comment.

Claremont Public Information Officer Bevin Handel declined to comment about the differences between the city’s process and that of the school district.

“We can't comment on the advice the CUSD attorney gave the board,” Ms. Handel said in an email. “We can only speak to the advice from our legal team and demographer, which refers to the CVRA 90-day safe harbor that begins with the resolution of intention to transition to district elections.”

Doug Johnson of NDC noted that CUSD is right in its assessment of the safe harbor period, but only in terms of the $30,000 payout.

“They are in the safe harbor for the $30,000 letter but not from a lawsuit,” he told the COURIER in a phone interview. Mr. Johnson and NDC have been hired by the city of Claremont to spearhead the city districting process.

He noted a handful of jurisdictions have gone down similar paths, and it all comes down to whether or not someone wants the board to transition to districts by 2020. He cited an example in Santa Barbara County, where 14 jurisdictions have reached an agreement with local Latino groups to wait until 2021 when the new census data comes out.

Other jurisdictions, however, have asked to wait until 2021 and have been denied, Mr. Johnson said. Under the law, if a jurisdiction receives a demand letter, they have 45 days to pass a resolution of intent and can request a 90-day extension.  

“It’s all a matter of trade off and whether they are ready to go in 45 days if they need to,” he said. “It could work out fine or they would have to go through the process very, very quickly.”

Mr. Elsasser noted the board will begin the public process of drawing maps and creating districts after the new census data is released.

“I would imagine, it would kind of be around the beginning of the 2021 school year a year prior to the election,” he said.

Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com