IS IT GERRYMANDERING? FINAL VOTE THURS. ON GROSSMONT REDISTRICTING: ALPINE AND CHALDEAN ADVOCATES OBJECT, ASK PUBLIC HELP

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By  Miriam Raftery

February 23, 2016 (San Diego’s East County)—Grosssmont-Union High School District’s board is expected to cast a final vote Thursday at 4 p.m. on controversial redistricting maps. The board will also vote to seek a waiver from the state from a requirement that would ordinarily requiring putting the redistricting measure on the ballot, and waiver from a state requiring that new trustee area plans be in effect at least 120 days before the next election in November.  (View meeting notice. The meeting will be at the East County Regional Education Center, 924 East Main Street, El Cajon.)

The district contends it has acted appropriately in response to a threat of legal action over alleged voting rights violations. But critics say the plan would oust the board’s most outspoken dissenting member, Priscilla Schreiber, leave Alpine represented by an opponent of the Alpine High School, and divide Iraqi-Chaldean residents into multiple districts, diluting their power as a voting block.  It also carves out a new district in the Lemon Grove/Spring Valley area with no trustee currently residing in that district, which does have a history of representing people of color.

The trouble started when an attorney for Diego Valley Charter, a school serving predominantly Latino and Chaldean students, sent the district a letter threatening a lawsuit unless the district changed from at-large elections to district elections in which a minority community can constitute a majority in an individual district, having a stronger chance of electing a board member who will reflect their concerns. The move came after the district sued to try and shut down Diego Valley and certain other charters, as ECM previously reported.

The District hired an outside consulting firm to draw up proposed maps. (View map 1, map 2, map 3).

Priscilla has long been a dissident board member and its only strong advocate for building a high school in Alpine that was twice approved by voters in Props U and H. The district has refused to build the school, sparking a Grand Jury investigation.  It ignored the Grand Jury recommendations and refused to turn over remaining bond funds to allow the neighbor Alpine Union School District to build the high school. The County Board of Education recommended that the state approve Alpine parents’ request to split off from the GUHSD and let the AUSD build the school.  The AUSD and Alpine taxpayers sued the district. The lawsuit and unification decisions both remain pending, with taxpayers on the hook for over $2.9 million in legal fees approved by the board thus far.

All three of the GUHSD’s proposed redistricting maps would leave Alpine represented not by Schreiber (who lives in Lakeside) but by Jim Kelly, a vocal opponent of the Alpine High School who has treated Alpine residents with disdain, many residents complain.  Kelly’s new district snakes across a vast area, from Lakeside in the north, east to Alpine and south to encompass Jamul near the Mexican border, also raising questions over the lack of neighborhood cohesiveness.

Moreover, since board members may remain in office after redistricting until the next election, there is a second concern.  Schreiber would be in the same newly created district as board member Robert Shield, who lives a half mile away from her.  Schreiber’s term is up two years before Shield’s—so she would be forced off the board, with no district in which to seek reelection for at least two more years. That leaves voters who support Schreiber effectively without their elected representative, or trustee, on the board.

“I  naively thought that each Trustee would be given a fair and equitable opportunity to either fulfill their term or be able to run for reelection in their respective Trustee areas, giving the voters a say n the process,” Schreiber told East County Magazine.  “The super-majority is only supporting maps that would consequently legislate me out, giving me no trustee area by which to seek reelection this November.”

She adds, “This current effort will be their final punitive act against me for any different viewpoints and positions on certain matters, as well as my efforts to bring to light their unethical and possible illegal use of taxpayer dollars. History has shown that the Board majority’s continual harassment toward me by limiting the opportunity for my questions, stifling public discourse and deliberative debate, attempting to silence me per a gag order and a blatant act of harassment by changing past practices for obvious and direct retribution against me.”

Thus far, two prior hearings on redistrict drew only two public comments. Schreiber hopes once the public realizes what’s at stake, more people will turn out Thursday at 4 p.m. to speak out in what is likely the last opportunity for public testimony. Schreiber also questions why the board is holding such an important meeting at 4 p.m. when many residents are at work, instead of at the board’s customary meeting time of 6 p.m.

Schreiber says that the board refuses to provide a “fair and equitable approach to this transition giving equal opportunity for all board members at the ballot box, then they will leave me no alternative but to file a legal complaint, CPRA, and take this discrimination and harassment against me where it should have gone years ago.”

Nick Marinovich recently resigned in protest from the GUHSD’s Citizens Bond Oversight Committee. He has also accused the board of wrongdoing. Asked about the redistricting plans, he called the board’s action a move to “legislate out a Board Member who actually stands up for what’s right and asks real questions. The move lacked transparency. No map shows the location of trustee residences in relation to proposed boundaries. Meager discussions about the impact of the Chaldean community representation on the Board.  There is a clear move to solidify the Tammany Hall-like style of this Board majority,” he said, adding that he has been threatened for speaking out against the board. He also objects to the Board’s recent move to restrict public testimony to only 3 minutes per person for an entire meeting, not 3 minutes per agenda item as it was in the past.

Sal Cassamassima, an Alpine resident and advocate for the high school, told ECM that the board’s latest actions show “why Alpine is seceding from Grossmont to form its own unified school district and why we have sued the district to get our share of bond funds that Kelly and his puppets have illegally redirected away from the construction of an Alpine high school per Props H and U.  Under Kelly’s `leadership’, Grossmotn has become a totally corrupt school district and their redistricting gerrymandering to get rid of Schreiber and the Chaldean  `problem’ is just the latest example of their corruption. I think we have not seen the last of lawsuits or investigations against Grossmont…Thank you of your continued interest in the ongoing horror that is Grossmont.”

Attorney John Lemmo, who sent the letter to the district warning of California Voting Rights allegations, also objects to the redistricting maps. (The CVRA calls for protection of language minorities, in addition to other designated minority groups.)  His letter specifically noted that nearly  half the GUHSD population is Latino, but no Latino board member has ever been elected. Verbally he has voiced concerns over the Chaldean population as well.

“The current mapping appears to be an intentional effort to skirt meaningful compliance,” he told ECM.  “Rather, it actually dilutes Chaldean voting rights. The GUHSD board continues to demonstrate its lack of respect for rules and the law. They are even using a lawsuit to try and stop a competitor charter school with a large Chaldean population from being able to lawfully serve those students. Taxpayers within GUHSD should be outraged.”

ECM has contacted National Demographics Corp., the consultants hired by the district to draw up the maps, to ask them to respond to the criticisms.  The company has not provided answers. 

This is not the first time the district has addressed concerns of federal or state Voting Rights Act violations.  In 2011, the district hired the law firm of Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost to prepare a report on whether the district was in compliance with the California Voting Rights Act.  The report was funded with taxpayer money. Yet oddly, on July 11, 2011, Superintendent Ralf Swenson sent an email to attorney Peter Fagen after receiving the report and a cover letter. Swenson stated, “I have decided to shred the document without reading it and to delete the email in which it was transmitted.” 

Destroying public records the day they are received raises serious questions of legality and transparency. It also begs the question: why fund a report on potential voting rights allegations and then supposedly refuse to read it, or make the document available to board members and the public?

Back in 2010, after the Census results were released, the County Office of Education concluded at that time that there was not a need for the GUHSD to move to trustee-area elections, but the board instructed the Superintendent to bring any change of circustances back to the board for possible reconsideration.  Since then the area has had a massive influx of Chaldean and other Arabic-speaking war refugees from Iraq.  So why wouldn’t the superintendent share results of the 2011 report with others?

Some concerned residents, who spoke under condition of anonymity fearing retaliation from the board, also criticized  secrecy of the recent redistricting proceedings, noting that discussion of possible litigation have led to discussions out of the public view during multiple closed session meeting. Some also questioned why more was not done to notify the public, such as posting notices on all high school websites, on social media for the district and the high schools, sending press releases to media (not just agendas), and more.

A check of several high school websites several days before Thursday’s hearing found nothing posted, though the district does have info on the redistricting on its homepage. A notice of  Thursday’s hearing is buried on an inside page, published in English, Arabic and Spanish.

ECM reached out to the State Office of Education to inquire if it has oversight on this issue, but Charlene Cheng responded that these are “local issues” and declined comment.

ECM also asked the GUHSD to respond to the concerns raised by many voters and district residents.

Catherine Martin said notices of the public hearing Thursday were published in the East County Californian and posted at all GUHSD campuses and in local libraries (but apparently not in online media or social media sites, nor campus websites). She said notices were also distributed to constituency groups including principals and directors (in person and electronically), PTSAs (Parent, Teacher and Student associations), department chairs and site leaderships councils, the distict’s English Language Advisory Council, and GUHSD feeder district superintendents who were asked to distribute to schools. Notice was also published in the GUHSD Superintendent’s Newsline in January and February, as well as in the Superintendent’s Board Report and on the District’s website.

As for the allegations made by some who contend the maps fail to address the needs of language minorities including Arabic-speaking Chaldean Christians and others from the Middle East, Martin says the California Voting Rights Act expressly adopts the definition of language minority from the federal Voting Rights Act which defines the term to mean persons of American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives or Spanish heritage “so there is no legal issue here.”

She further claims that “even if these groups did constitute a ` language mionrity’ for purposes of the Act, under controlling Supreme Court case law they would have to be able to form a majority in a single-member trustee area to allege a viable claim…to the extent these groups m ay be divided, it is because their population concentrations are dispersed and fall within multiple cities/attendance areas/elementary school districts. There was absolutely no effort to purposely divide them.”

Schreiber fires back, “So, we shouldn’t ensure the intent or spirit of the law, since we have the second largest Chaldean population in the nation?”

Martin also says the CVRA applies “only to at-large voting, not to trustee areas, so has nothing to say about the shape of the trustee area,” a statement Schreiber disputes.  Martin notes that district’s must be equal in population, and the eastern portion is less populated, thus larger.

  Martin objects to the term “gerrymandering” used by some to describe the district’s actions.  She contends there are “two perfectly legitimate explanations for why Trustee Schreiber is not in the trustee area containing Alpine in any of these maps –geography and population.”  Kelly lives farthest east of any current trustee so “it was natural that he would end up representing the eastern-most trustee area,” Martin says, adding, “Any configuration of the lines that circled around him to pull a trustee from at least 10 miles to the west into the eastern-most area really would be legitimately open to a claim of gerrymandering.”

She says it was inevitable that two trustees be put in the same district and inevitable that those two be Schreiber and Shield, who live about a half mile apart.  (Schreiber lives on Linroe Drive in Lakeside near Zeijl Lane. Shield is on Sunview Drive in El Cajon near Hay Court.  Kelly lives on Silva Road near East Creek Road in El Cajon.  Woods is also in El Cajon at East Madison Avenue near Orlando Street, while Stieringer lives on Henderson Drive in La Mesa near White Place, according to a public records request made by ECM to determine residence. We are not publishing exact addresses to protect privacy of board members.)

Martin says the reason for pairing two trustees in one district is to create a majority-minority trustee area in Lemon Grove/Spring Valley , avoiding a potential lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act.  She concludes that drawing Trustee Stieringer into that area would undermine its majority-minority status.”