When Ellyn Bell made public her intention to leave the Sacramento City Unified School District board of trustees–so she could live closer to her new job in San Francisco–her colleagues on the school board decided it was too late and too expensive to call an election to fill her seat.
So they plan to pick their own replacement to represent Area 1 (Land Park, Curtis Park, the Grid), and to serve the remainder of Bell’s term, which ends December 2014. The board is scheduled to pick from eight applicants, and to make that appointment this December 20.
That decision may be overruled by voters, however. Community activists and district labor unions are now calling for a special election to replace Bell. And they’re threatening a petition drive that would force an election, even if the board makes it’s own pick.
Annette Deglow is one of the folks leading the effort–she was also one of the community activists who helped to write and pass Measures J and K, which brought area elections to the district and replaced the old at-large system in 2006.
Deglow says the school board’s decision to appoint a new board member, rather than allowing area residents to pick their own representative, is undemocratic and undermines the system voters put in place just a few years ago.
“It flies in the face of J and K. Those candidates aren’t out there trying to work the residents of Area 1. They are trying to work the board members,” says Deglow. “We will challenge the appointment, whoever it is. I don’t want them to think it’s personal.”
If the board decides to go ahead with its plan to appoint a new board member, Deglow, or anyone else, would have 30 days from the time of the appointment to collect 2454 signatures to force the district to hold a special election to fill the seat.
That’s 1.5 percent of the registered voters in the school district, according to Sacramento County Campaign Services Manager/elections guru Brad Buyse. He said the petitioners would probably have to collect 2800-3000 signatures to be on the safe side, since a lot of signatures don’t check out as valid.
Given the timeline set out by Buyse, if the petitioners turn in enough valid signatures the election would likely wind up being held in the summer, I’m assuming June 2013.
Here’s where it gets weird. If there is a special election, the new board member elected at that time wouldn’t be seated until December 2013. So, whoever the board appoints this month would be in office for about a year (12/12 to 12/13). Then whoever gets elected in 2013 would also be in office for a year (12/13 to 12/14).
Again, this is my best understanding of the how the process would work, though I think it’s still being sussed out by district lawyers and election officials.
The potential a having a new board member rotate through every year for the next two or three years is…not optimal. And I’m sure the argument will be made that it would be a lot smoother just to let the board make their appointment. On the other hand, democracy is messy. And why are we in this messy situation in the first place? Isn’t it because of decisions made by members of the school board?
After all, who really knew what, and when, regarding Bell’s departure? Given that Bell took the San Francisco job back in the spring, why was this not sorted out a lot sooner? With just a little more notice, her seat could have been up for election on last November’s ballot. Deglow and others are asking why Bell’s resignation was delayed so long.
Of course, the other big argument for a board appointment is that the cost of the election is just too high. According to Buyse a special election would cost $155,000 to $280,000. However, it is possible for the District to decide to hold a mail-in ballot only election, which could save some money. How much money? Proponents say it could save as much as 60 percent off the normal costs. Buyse said he didn’t have enough information to give an estimate, but he acknowledged that a mail in election could save money, because the county could then avoid setting up polling places, paying precinct workers, etc.
This seems like something to watch for. If you really want to weigh all the options and come up with the best answer, as democratic and as cost-effective as possible, then you should at least ask the question, and have the county elections folks bring back an estimate for the costs of a mail-in only election. Right? We’ll see if any of the trustees raise the question at the Thursday board meeting, or if they just plow ahead with appointment. My money is on plow.
Some will question spending ANY money on an election if it can be avoided. But as Sacramento City Teacher’s Association president Scott Smith points out, the board spends all kinds of money that people don’t always agree with. For example, “They had $500,000 to spend on City Year.”
The rumor is that of the eight candidates who have applied for the job, Bina Lefkovitz already has lined up the four votes she needs to get the appointment. That wouldn’t be so surprising. Her resume is long, and she showed at a recent community forum at Cal Middle School that’s she’s quite knowledgeable about our schools. (She’s also a big fan of Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s “priority schools” program, which will win her some points down at Serna Center ).
And she’s got some very powerful friends lobbying on her behalf–like California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, and of course her Sacramento City Council member husband Jay Schenirer, who has weirdly been trying to keep reporters from mentioning his name in this story.
I’m sorry for this diversion, but I should explain: After I mentioned on this blog , and in my column, that Lefkovitz is married to Schenirer, and that Schenirer made some pretty dubious (to put it politely) decisions back when he was a member the school board, Schenirer flipped out. He complained to the SN&R editors, and to the paper’s owner, though never to me directly, and said I was sexist for bringing up his record in a story about his spouse making a bid for the same office he once held. Because, what political reporter would do that, right?
Sorry, politics and Schenirer’s record are a big part of the backstory here. That’s why I don’t much care what Jay Schenirer says I can or can not write about. I’m more interested in what George Orwell and/or Bill Moyers have to say: “The news is about what people want to keep hidden. Everything else is publicity.” (A little pretentious for a blog post, sure, but it helps me to keep some of this stuff in perspective.)
Where was I? Oh right, 2454 signatures. If you think about it, not all that many signatures. Especially with the teachers union and other district labor groups now officially backing the idea of a special election. And especially if it looks like the board’s appointment is some sort of back room deal.