Tehachapi Unified School District appears to be headed toward a change in how its Board of Trustees is elected.

A special meeting of the board was held on May 5 and a public hearing has been set for 2 p.m. on May 10. The board has a regular meeting set to begin at 5 p.m. on the same day. Both meetings will be held in the District Office Board Room, 300 S. Robinson St., Tehachapi.

According to a notice posted on the school district's website, the public hearing on May 10 is being held pursuant to Elections Code Section 10010(a)(1)a to receive public input regarding the composition of proposed trustee areas.

All interested persons are invited to attend and will be given an opportunity to be heard. Anyone unable to attend who wishes to submit a public comment to be read during the hearing may send it by email to lamacher@tehachapiusd.com prior to noon on the day before the hearing.

Translation will be provided with a prior request by noon on the day before the hearing.

According to a notice posted on the school district's website, the public hearing on May 10 is being held pursuant to Elections Code Section 10010(a)(1)a to receive public input regarding the composition of proposed trustee areas.

All interested persons are invited to attend and will be given an opportunity to be heard. Anyone unable to attend who wishes to submit a public comment to be read during the hearing may send it by email to lamacher@tehachapiusd.com prior to noon on the day before the hearing.

Translation will be provided with a prior request by noon on the day before the hearing.

At the May 5 meeting, the board passed a resolution of intent to initiate a change of its election system to by-trustee area elections in single-member trustee areas.

In a news release, Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson said the board believes that "by-trustee area" elections may enhance the ability for a greater number of candidates to run for seats on the board by eliminating the costs associated with running for election districtwide and that "by-trustee area" elections may make it easier for trustees to get to know their constituents and for constituents to get to know their trustees.

But a larger reason the district is considering the change is likely to avoid the risk of costly litigation in case the current election method is challenged in court.

"Electoral systems like the one currently used by the district are subject to challenge under the California Voting Rights Act," according to the news release. "In contract, 'by-trustee area' elections are not subject to challenge under the CVRA."

The Tehachapi City Council changed its member elections from at-large to by council district for the same reason in 2017. But last year the board of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District decided to make no change, keeping its election of five members representing different areas with at-large voting.

Members of the school district's seven-member board are currently elected in accordance with Education code section 5020(a) and (c), which are deemed to be "at large" elections under the definition contained in the Elections Code.

"The current at-large system has resulted in fair and open elections, and no one has demanded that the district change its method of election," the superintendent said. "However, the considered view of the Board of Trustees is that the public interest may also be well-served by election of its governing board in 'by-trustee area' elections," she said. In such elections, only those voters residing in a given trustee area will vote for the representative of that area.

Once approved by the board, the proposed change will be forwarded to the Kern County Committee on School District Organization for review and approval. The superintendent said that if the committee approves the request, the Education Code exempts it from the obligation to submit to the electorate for approval because the change is being made in furtherance of the purposes of the voting rights act, which exempts by-trustee electoral systems from liability under that act.

Upcoming election

The intent of the board, according to the news release, is to change to single-member trustee areas "with a thorough public process" and that the adoption of by-trustee area elections will not affect the terms of any sitting trustee, each of whom will serve out his or her current term.

Current board members and their terms of office are as follows:

• Area 1, Seat A - Tyler Napier, term expires December 2024.

• Area 1, Seat B - Rick Scott, term expires December 2022.

• Area 2, Seat C - Joe Wallek, term expires December 2022. 

• Area 2, Seat D - Jackie Wood, term expires December 2024.

• Area 3, Seat E - Nancy Weinstein, term expires December 2022.

• Area 3, Seat F - Tracy Kelly, term expires December 2024.

• Area 4, Seat G - Jeff Kermode, term expires December 2022.

According to the Kern County Elections Office, the filing period for local elections (including the school board) to be held this year will open July 8 and run through Aug. 12 with the election set for Tuesday, Nov. 8.

It was not clear from the board action on May 5 how the trustee areas might be divided to provide for representation by single-member trustee areas — or whether this might be accomplished in time for the 2022 board election.

Background

The at-large election of seven trustees representing different areas of the district was established when the school district was unified in 1957. The district encompasses an area of 522 square miles. Currently, there are three geographical areas, each with two representatives, and an additional "at large" area represented by the seventh seat on the board.

According to the book, "The Long Road to Tehachapi" by Judy Barras, an election was held that year to combine two elementary school districts — Aqueduct Elementary and Tehachapi Union Elementary — with Tehachapi Valley Union High School District. Outlying elementary school districts serving other rural areas had already either been consolidated with the Tehachapi elementary district or disbanded.

The larger than typical seven-person board was established to ensure representation of residents of areas throughout the district. 

Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: claudia@claudiaelliott.net.