The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
County community college district officials are slated to take a next step in the move from at-large elections in the interest of leveling the playing field for all seeking a seat on the school board.
The San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees will hold a public hearing Wednesday, March 22, gathering feedback on a proposed transition to by-district elections.
The focus of the upcoming conversation will be three proposed maps divvying the county into areas determining districts where candidates must live and would represent should they be elected.
Though officials were reticent to offer feedback regarding the merits of each proposed map before the meeting, they did express an interest in ultimately adopting the by-district election method.
“I think this is pretty much where we are going,” said board President Tom Mohr. “The question really is which of the three scenarios the board will decide is the best.”
Trustee Karen Schwarz echoed a similar sentiment.
“I think it could happen very easily,” she said. “Hopefully we will get more diversity on the board.”
Shifts to the by-district system are often brought by an interest among officials to encourage civic participation in communities commonly underrepresented on elected boards.
The Sequoia Union High School District recently adopted the change under the threat of a lawsuit from a civil justice organization claiming some residents of Redwood City and East Palo Alto felt their best interests were not being served by an all-white school board. The South San Francisco Unified School District has discussed a similar change to protect against a potential lawsuit as well.
No such legal challenge has been issued to the community college district, said Schwarz, who noted her hope the shift would invite greater participation by subdividing the county into smaller regions more manageable for someone on a limited budget to run a campaign.
“The merit is simple — that you have a trustee that represents one area that only has to campaign in that area,” she said. “Hopefully you get more people that want to run for the board. Now, being countywide, it is very expensive to run.”
Mohr also lauded the potential benefits offered by a departure from the current system under which trustees must canvass an entire county for a seat on the board.
Should the board ultimately go ahead with the change, Schwarz said she harbors concerns those elected would hold the interest of their supporters above the entire district’s well-being. Such a reservation is common among those identifying potential issues with the by-district system, but Schwarz said ultimately she is hopeful anyone seeking elected office would keep an eye to serving all county students equally.
“I don’t think you can help that not happening,” she said. “But we will see.”
The board has considered a similar shift in the past, but momentum dissolved after an initial round of talks, said Schwarz.
There is no definite timeline for the board to move ahead with the shift, should it ultimately be adopted, as another public hearing is scheduled next month. Schwarz though suggested officials should consider making the move concurrently with the transition to even-year elections, which was recently approved by the board.
Looking ahead to the upcoming meeting, Mohr and Schwarz said they are hopeful residents and voters attend to share their perspective on the proposal.
“We are doing this and they have the opportunity to ask questions,” she said.
For his part, Mohr said he believed ramping up public participation in the district could result in better educational opportunities for the entire community.
“I think there is a genuine concern that we provide a great opportunity to represent all people of the county, and that all people of the county have a stake in the well-being of the district,” he said.
The San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees meets 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, Cañada College, Building 2, Room 10, 4200 Farm Hill Blvd.