The Foothill-De Anza Community College District is asking the public for input on how to draw boundary lines dividing the district into areas that will directly elect candidates to its board of trustees.
Since its founding in 1957, the district has picked trustees using at-large elections spanning the entire district. Starting in November 2022, the district is set to switch to area-based elections. That will mean splitting the district into five geographic sections, with voters in each area picking a board member who also lives there.
The first public hearing on the change is slated for tonight (Sept. 13) at 7 p.m. over Zoom.
The board of trustees decided to make the switch to area elections in 2019 under the threat of a lawsuit. District resident Sebastian Aguilar sent the district a demand letter, supported by the nonprofit California Voting Rights Project, alleging that the district may be violating the California Voting Rights Act in holding districtwide elections. They argued that there is a history of racially polarized voting in the district's trustee elections.
"The current, at-large method of election to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees impairs the ability of protected classes to elect candidates of their choice and their ability to influence the outcome of elections," a report from the California Voting Rights Project said.
The district disputed that characterization, but nonetheless voted to transition away from at-large elections. The decision was largely because trustees got legal advice that California law "strongly favors" area-based elections, board President Peter Landsberger said.
"While we did not believe there was racially polarized voting in our district, defending that proposition would have been time-consuming and expensive at a point where we had a lot of other items in the fryer," Landsberger said.
At the time, the district didn't know of any governing bodies in California who had succeeded in court defending districtwide elections, Chancellor Judy Miner said. Other local agencies, including the Sunnyvale City Council, have switched to district elections in recent years.
Making the switch
Over the coming months, the board will embark on the process of drawing the boundary lines, with a final vote slated for February. It has hired an outside firm to create proposed maps, based on input from the board and public.
Each of the five areas need to be roughly equal in population, based on 2020 census data. The district includes over 400,000 voters and spans from Palo Alto down into a small part of San Jose.
The trustee areas will need to take into consideration keeping together "communities of interest" that exist in a given area. A community of interest can be a racial or language minority group, as well as factors like school districts or tourism areas, according to information provided by the district.
The public is being asked to provide input and help identify communities of interest at meetings scheduled for Sept. 13 and Oct. 4.
Landsberger urged the community to take part, saying that colleges can get into trouble when the community doesn't pay attention to who is on the board.
"(The colleges) are very important community resources and to the extent that this is going to shape their future, people ought to pay attention," Landsberger said. "Don't leave it to something haphazard."
For information on the switch to area elections, as well instructions to join tonight's meeting, visit fhda.edu/trustee-areas.
Tonight's meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m., during the regular board of trustees meeting. Those wishing to participate by Zoom can do so by dialing 669-900-6833 and using Meeting ID: 960 9373 3258, passcode: 313057.