BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO: GROSSMONT VOTES FOR TRUSTEE DISTRICTS, BYPASSING PUBLIC VOTE

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By Miriam Raftery

Controversial plan outrages Alpine voters, Chaldeans and other district residents

Photo: Priscilla Schreiber will be forced off the board in November if the county approves the GUHSD's redistricting proposal.

February 25, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) – Grossmont Union High School District voted 4-1 to ditch district-wide elections and break up the district into five areas that will each elect its own trustee. (View map)  The board also voted to ask the San Diego County Committee on School Board Reorganization to waive a requirement that would ordinarily allow the public to vote on redistricting.

The plan carves out a new District 1 in Lemon Grove, Spring Valley and La Prensa that will be an open seat in November with no incumbent.  Three minorities (Latino, blacks and Asians) constitute the majority of voters in that district. The new district would mean at least one new trustee would be elected to the school board.

Jim Stieringer, who is up for reelection in November, will have District 2 that includes La Mesa , Mt. Helix, Casa de Oro, and part of Rancho San Diego.  He is the only incumbent up for relection with a seat that could potentially turn over, if someone files to run against him in the compact new district and wins.

Dr. Gary Woods, who won’t face reelection until 2018, will represent predominantly El Cajon in District 3.

District 4 includes Santee and the western portions of Lakeside.  Two current trustees, Priscilla Schreiber  and Robert Shield both live in this district. But since Schreiber’s term ends in November and Shield’s continues until 2018, Schreiber will be off the board and unable to run for election again until 2018.

Jim Kelly, whose seat is also safe until at least the 2018 election, will represent a vast rural swath  in District 5, which includes much of Lakeside and Barona in the north, east to encompass Crest, Harbison Canyon and Alpine, and south to include Jamul and other rural communities.

At today’s 4 p.m. board meeting, Doug Johnson from National Demographics Corporation gave a presentation. The public presented heated testimony and Schreiber peppered the consultant with questions.

The consultant presented three maps for the board to choose from, all of which would result in Schreiber being off the board.  The first, which was selected for approval, keeps communities together including rural areas in a single district. (A second option was based on high school districts, while the third was based on feeder elementary districts.)  He said two trustees had to be paired in one district because they lived the closest together, about a half mile. 

He added that the new, largely minority district created is needed to avoid a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit.  He said Chaldeans and Middle Eastern people are “not a protected class.”

The district instigated the redistricting after getting a letter from an attorney threatening legal action if redistricting was not approved.  That letter specifically mentioned a need for Latino representation.  According To Superintendent Ralf Swenson, 52% of English as a second language classes in the district are in Spanish, while 19% are for Arabic speakers.

All but one of the public speakers opposed the plans.

Nick Marinovich, a former member of the district’s Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, called the redistricting a “charade” and an “attempt to legislate out a trustee.” 

Schreiber has been the only advocate on the board for a new high school in Alpine. Of the trustees, only Schreiber has repeatedly asked pointed questions about seeming misuse of bond funds, lax oversight and other important issues. Marinovich has raised similar questions. The board majority’s decisions to ignore grand jury recommendations and refusal to either build the school or turnover funds to the adjacent Alpine union School District to do so resulted in a lawsuit filed by Alpine taxpayers and the Alpine Union School  District seeking to force the GUHSD to turn over bond money to build the school.

 A unification petition by Alpine parents seeking to leave the Grossmont District and have funds transferred to the AUSD to build the school has been recommended for approval by the County Board of Education and is now pending before the state.

Can any redistricting plan that deprives a community of its elected long-time vocal advocate and replaces her with an opponent of the community's long-standing desire to build a school possibly be deemed fair by a court of law, particularly when the board's actions regarding that issue are now the subject of litigation?

Greg Barr, an elected trustee on the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District Board, stated, “I cannot understand mapping to exclude a current board member…Another criteria [in redistricting] should be to present duly elected members.”  He called the board’s motives “suspect” due to the Alpine High School litigation, noting, “Jim Kelly would be the representative for Alpine even though he opposes the high school there…Mr.. Kelly would not be representing the wishes of Alpine.”

Barring a recall election, however, Alpine voters will be stuck with Kelly (photo, right), despite his outspoken opposition to the Alpine high school, until at least the 2018 election.

Kathleen Hedberg, a Helix Water Board member, spoke as an individual voter who previously opposed changes to high school boundaries in the district. She said the board “lied” to her about accommodations for her daughter after moving her into “the wrong high school district” for the feeder school she attended.  She said she is “appalled” at the redistricting plan, adding, “Please go back to the drawing board.”

As an elected official herself, she noted that while populations must be roughly equal in districts, 10% deviations are allowed.  “Do the right thing, and make this work for your district,” she urged.

Hedberg also asked the board to allow the public to vote on redistricting and not seek a waiver.  “You guys spend a lot of our tax dollars without public participation and this warrants participation,” she asserted.

Barbara Stevens, a previous candidate for the GUHSD board, said she welcomes the concept of smaller representation areas, noting it will ease the financial burden on people wishing to run for the board.  “People in the Helix area never feel that have representation,” she said. “Four of you live so close you could probably holler at each other.” She said she is “suspicious” of why as a voter, she didn’t hear about the redistricting until it was in the media.

“People feel they are being hoodwinked,” she stated. She voiced opposition to waiving a public vote on the proposed redistricting, calling the waiver “a dangerous thing; it just doesn’t seem right.” She urged the board to “take more time to make a better decision.”

Lisa Stewart, a parent of a Monte Vista high school student, said she was surprised there are no maps showing where board members live. She also objected to parents not receiving information, but added that she believed the third option, a map based on feeder district, would be the best of the three options so that board members could have a “point of reference” with parents at feeder schools.

Ben Kalasho, president and founder of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, said he has received “hundreds of phone calls” and requested to be included in drawing the maps to assure adequate representation for Chaldeans and other Middle Eastern people who are a “vital part of the community.”  He indicated there are “a lot of angry parents” right now and called for “tabling the process for more discussion” because “the Chaldean co munity can’t be forgotten.”  He said a lot of parents believe the board has been politicized. “The reason why I’m here is to ask to be included,” he added, noting that the Chamber has 500 members and 113 affiliates.

Schreiber asked if there has been any communication with the attorney who sent the letter to ask if he would allow the board more time to address the concerns raised before a late March meeting with the County.   Several other speakers also made this request.   The consultant admitted that there has been no effort to check back with the attorney, who represents a charter school that has many Chaldean as well as Latino students.

Woods insisted that the board has not engaged in gerrymandering, as some opponents have claimed.  “We’re here for the students,” he said, adding that any other action would dilute the majority-minority district in the Lemon Grove area “for the needs of one board member,” a pointed reference to Schreiber. He insisted the other maps would divide up some communities and even divide up Chaldeans, though the map approved by the board splits the largely Chaldean communities of El Cajon and Rancho San Diego into three separate districts.

No one offered any compelling reason why if two board members needed to be paired in one district, the pairing couldn’t have been two members whose terms expire at the same time, to avoid automatic ejection of one member off of the board.

Schreiber cited the board’s long history of what she has previously described has harassment and repeated efforts to silence her dissenting voice.  In an e-mail to ECM last week, she stated she intends to pursue legal action if the board voted to draw her out of a district.

Shield did allot Schreiber extra time to speak. At the end of her allotted time, she stated that her ouster,  “has come as a shock to me. The board never told me  `You’re out.’ I had to figure it out.’”

Shield countered, “It’s not our fault that you didn’t ask that question.”