Two community members have sued the San Dieguito Union High School Board over the board’s new redistricting map, alleging the new boundaries amount to political gerrymandering to favor the board’s conservative members.
The board adopted the map last month, 3-2, despite being warned by the county superintendent that the map was potentially illegal because it rearranges voting boundaries, rather than just adjusting them to the latest population figures.
Also unclear is who drew up the map.
District administrators did not provide the author’s name in response to a request by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Four board members told the Union-Tribune they do not know who created the map, and Trustee Michael Allman did not respond for comment by deadline.
Disputes about the map align with prior heated divisions between the trustees that have thrown the North County district of 13,000 middle and high school students into turmoil over the past two years.
Conflicts about when to reopen schools, whether to require students to wear masks, how to fill a school board vacancy, and other issues have resulted in San Dieguito board meetings lasting past midnight. There were public arguments between trustees during meetings, bad-mouthing from trustees and residents on social media, as well as hate mail received by board members.
School board trustees are meant to be nonpartisan positions, but the COVID-era conflicts about issues like schools reopening, masks and vaccines have exacerbated the influence of partisan politics in school board decision-making.
Much of the tension on the board has been between Republicans Allman and Maureen Muir, and Katrina Young and Julie Bronstein, who are Democrats. The fifth trustee, Melisse Mossy, a Republican, has often voted with Allman and Muir.
Allman, Muir and Mossy voted for the redistricting map, while Young and Bronstein voted against it.
The fight about redistricting is one of the latest examples of how politics is taking time and attention away from San Dieguito students, Mossy said, adding it has become more difficult in recent years to get people to compromise and co-exist; instead there is escalating vitriol and hate.
“It’s all about politics, and we need to remove that,” Mossy said. “Whether it’s maps or any other issue, the focus is being blurred and a lot of energy and time are being dedicated to things that don’t benefit our kids.”
The San Dieguito board, like most school boards in the county, has five members. Each are elected to staggered, four-year terms from a geographic sub-section of the district. Trustees must live in the area they represent.
After every census school boards must redistrict, or adjust their boundaries, to ensure relatively equal population numbers in each sub-district. Redistricting matters because it can change voting power balances among communities.
However the part of state law that explains redistricting for schools is six paragraphs long and only mentions population numbers as a criterion.
As a result, San Dieguito trustees and community members have disagreed over what other factors should be prioritized when redistricting. Should keeping cities and towns together be prioritized, or elementary feeder school districts? Should trustees remain in their current sub-districts? Should the impact of redistricting on this year’s election cycle be considered?
The map is controversial largely because it changes the sub-districts so that three of the five trustees are no longer in the areas that they were elected to represent.
The map doubles up trustees in two areas by redrawing the boundaries around their homes. And it leaves two areas with no trustee within their boundaries — sub-districts 2 and 5, which were Young’s and Bronstein’s sub-districts, respectively.
Critics of the map say this unfairly removes most trustees from areas that voted for them, and it could effectively force Young to run for re-election this year even though she has two years left in her term.
Meanwhile the lawsuit claims thousands of voters who were supposed to vote in this year’s elections would now have to wait two more years, which critics say constitutes disenfranchisement.
“There were other maps submitted that were more representative of our community and more balanced, but yet they chose Map 8, which is definitely gerrymandering,” said Lisa Montes, a resident of Solana Beach’s historically Mexican-American neighborhood, La Colonia de Eden Gardens.
Montes is one of the plaintiffs suing San Dieguito. Resident Carol Chang is the other; both are represented by attorney Cory Briggs.
Only Muir and Allman — the map’s most vocal supporter on the board — are allowed to continue representing their current areas with the new map.
The lawsuit alleges that was done on purpose to disadvantage the Democratic minority voting members of the board, Young and Bronstein.
“The majority recently misused the statutorily required procedure for adjusting the boundaries of SDUHSD’s five trustee areas in order to give the majority’s members an electoral advantage in upcoming elections, and to put the minority’s two members at a disadvantage, by altogether rearranging the boundaries instead,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges this rearrangement of boundaries is illegal because school districts can only “adjust” their boundaries, and only a county committee has the power to “rearrange” boundaries or make other major changes.
The lawsuit also claims the map weakens the voting power of Latino and Asian populations in the school district.
Compared to the district’s previous map, the new map reduces the percentage of Latinos in two sub-districts by more than 3 points while raising it by 3 points in another, which the lawsuit claims is “packing” Latinos into one sub-district. The lawsuit also takes issue with the fact that the Asian population was reduced by 2 percentage points in one sub-district.
Some trustees and community members also noted that the map breaks up coastal communities. It splits Solana Beach, a city of about 13,000, and Encinitas, of 63,000, into three trustee areas.
It also splits Cardiff, which has about 13,000 people, into two trustee areas.
“When three trustees represent a small city like Solana Beach, it dilutes the vote,” Montes said.
The attorney representing San Dieguito in the lawsuit, Randall Winet, said in court documents that the lawsuit contains “numerous misstatements” without evidence.
Allman has argued the map does not decrease racial minorities’ voting power because if the population of a racial group declines in one sub-district, it rises in others.
He also has said in board meetings that the map is based on keeping coastal communities together in their own sub-districts. He said in a Facebook post that there is nothing in the redistricting law specifying how much of an adjustment of boundaries is too much.
Others didn’t buy that explanation; some suggested that the drawing of boundaries around trustees’ houses seems suspect.
“It would make sense, Trustee Allman, if you were being sincere about wanting it to be coastal, but the way it’s been drawn, it literally has a line just right around my house,” Bronstein said during a board meeting last month.
Young has said nobody has explained why the map renumbers and switches the sub-districts.
“Public comments and emails citing accusations of illegal gerrymandering and/or a blatant disregard of our authority definitely could put our district in legal peril,” Young said in a Facebook post explaining her vote against the map.
Mossy said she voted for the map even though it moves her to a different area, because it has the most balanced population totals among the sub-districts, which she said is the main criterion the board must consider. Keeping board trustees in their elected areas was not a factor she was told to consider, Mossy said.
County Superintendent Paul Gothold warned the district in a Feb. 17 letter, on the same day of the board’s vote, that redistricting is not meant to overhaul voting area boundaries but to adjust them.
He added, “We do not support the creation of trustee areas that serve to disenfranchise voters.”
Gothold sent the letter after he had been contacted by a community member who had helped create a competing redistricting map that was not chosen.
Gothold said that if the district is sued about the map, the district could be liable for attorneys’ fees. He also said a county committee would write a compliant redistricting plan for San Dieguito if the district failed to do so by its deadline, and the committee would make San Dieguito reimburse the committee for all costs associated with it.
Allman discounted Gothold’s letter on social media.
“The letter essentially states, ‘if you submit an illegal map, the county will draw it for you.’ No kidding. That is like saying ‘if you are found guilty of committing a crime, you could go to jail,’” Allman wrote in a Facebook post. “Here’s the nuance: the maps weren’t illegal. They were already approved and certified as compliant by the demographer. Strike one.”
Allman added, “The decision on which map to choose is up to our board, and no one else.”
San Diego County Office of Education spokeswoman Music Watson said it is up to the court to determine next steps for the redistricting. For example, a judge could order the county committee to draw a new map for San Dieguito by April 30, the deadline set by state law, although it is unclear if the case will reach a conclusion by that time, Watson said.