Across California, more than 190 school districts are electing board members to represent specific geographic areas in hopes of improving the representation of diverse communities.

The West Contra Costa Unified district in the Bay Area is one of the most recent to make this change after it faced a lawsuit that alleged “at large” elections in the district that serves about 29,000 students in Richmond and surrounding areas did not give African-American and Latino voters adequate representation on the five-member board.

Richmond resident Linda Ruiz-Lozito sued West Contra Costa Unified last year, claiming that the election of school board members from the entire district violated the 2001 California Voting Rights Act because some minorities lacked the voting power to elect board members that represent their interests.

She also argued that winners came from the district’s affluent areas with significant financial backing from special interest groups. She hopes smaller voting districts will make it easier for candidates to run successful grassroots campaigns. Smaller voting districts should help level the playing field, she said, because each candidate will only need to reach about 25,000 voters instead of 125,000 voters, which could be accomplished with less money.

Over 12 years, the district has seen its Latino population increase from 28 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. The percentage of whites dropped from 29 to 23 percent and African Americans dwindled from 21 to 13 percent, falling below the Asian population, which held steady at 19 percent.

The majority (54 percent) of the 31,600 students who attend district and charter schools in West Contra Costa are Latino.

Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who has testified as an expert witness in some California Voting Rights Act cases, said 194 of the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts have converted from “at-large” elections since 2008. An additional 67 districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, held elections by voter district prior to 2008, he said.

After months of legal wrangling, a Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge on March 6 ordered that the West Contra Costa school district use a voter map that divides West Contra Costa Unified into five regions beginning in 2020, including one majority African-American area in the western portion of Richmond and one majority Latino area in San Pablo and a slice of Richmond.

The southernmost district in El Cerrito is majority white, while the other two districts in the northeastern section of the district, which include the cities of Hercules and Pinole and the eastern portion of Richmond, have more diverse voting populations where no one group makes up a majority.

All board member seats will be up for re-election in 2020, according to the new map which will be subject to change again following the 2020 census.

West Contra Costa Unified school board members, left to right, Valerie Cuevas, Consuelo Lara, Mister Phillips, Stephanie Hernandez-Jarvis and Tom Panas listen to a presentation on March 20. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today)