Visalia Unified starts redistricting process

School district holds public meetings this week to gather input from residents on redrawing its seven Trustee Area boundaries

VISALIA – Visalia Unified is starting its redistricting process a little later than the city of Visalia and it expects to finish sooner.

At its Oct. 13 meeting, Visalia Unified School District’s board of trustees received a presentation on the redistricting process and timeline from its law firm, Lozano-Smith, and school consulting firm, SchoolWorks. The Visalia Unified School District Board of Education is comprised of seven trustees, each residing in and elected by the residents of one of the seven political districts. Known as Trustee Areas, these boundaries are different than attendance area boundaries and do not affect which schools students are assigned to attend. While Visalia Unified boundaries are larger than the city limits of Visalia and has more elected offices, school district redistricting is a more streamlined process.

In order to provide the community an opportunity to participate in the process, VUSD will host four informational meetings to discuss the redistricting of Trustee Areas and gather community input on preliminary maps that will be considered for approval by the VUSD Board on Nov. 9, 2021.

The first two meetings will be held today, Wednesday, Oct. 27 at Ridgeview Middle School multipurpose room at 5:30 p.m. and another at the Valley Oak Middle School multipurpose room at 7 p.m. Two more meetings will be held tomorrow, Thursday, Oct. 28 at the La Joya Middle School multipurpose room at 5:30 p.m. and another at the Divisadero Middle School multipurpose room at 7 p.m.

The school district’s timeline for approving maps can be shorter because there are less restrictions on school district trustee areas than city council and county supervisorial districts. Cities and counties are subject to the Fair And Inclusive Redistricting for Municipalities And Political Subdivisions (FAIR MAPS) Act which requires the following criteria be used to adopt maps: (1) geographically contiguous districts (each city council district should share a common border with the next), (2) the geographic integrity of local neighborhoods or communities shall be respected in a manner that minimizes its division, (3) geographic integrity of a city shall be respected in a manner that minimizes its division, (4) easily identifiable boundaries that follow natural or artificial barriers (rivers, streets, highways, rail lines, etc.), and (5) lines shall be drawn to encourage geographic compactness. In addition, boundaries shall not be drawn for purposes of favoring or discriminating against a political party.

Unlike cities and counties, Smith said school districts are only primarily required to comply with state education code. Ed Code section 5019.5 only requires the population of each trustee area to be “the same proportion of the population” as the other trustee areas “as nearly as may be.” Michael Smith, principal of Lozano Smith, said the rule allows a deviation of plus or minus 10% from the smallest trustee area to the largest trustee area. This rule applies to the total population and does not take into account the voting age population or the number of registered voters in each area. Based on 2020 Census data, each of VUSD’s seven trustee area should each have 23,000 people in it.

Demographer Ken Reynolds, president of SchoolWorks, said the difference between the smallest trustee area (Area 6) and the largest trustee area (Area 4) is 5,545 people, or a deviation of 21.11%. If any one trustee area is 5% above or below, that begins to exceed the 10% deviation.

“Only two of the 50 districts reviewed by SchoolWorks in the Valley was within the 10% deviation,” Reynolds said.

School districts must also follow some federal and state laws which require other factors to be considered, such as geography, neighborhoods, contiguousness and current trustees. However, Smith also said VUSD is not subject to the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which forced many public agencies to shift from at-large to by-trustee elections in order to create minority majority districts, where people of color could be elected from more diverse districts. Visalia Unified made the switch in 2011 and currently every trustee area has a Hispanic majority. The most ethnically diverse district is Area 7, which is 46.92% Hispanic, 41.45% White, the highest percentage of Native American and Pacific Islander residents, the second highest percentage of Black residents and the fourth highest percentage of Asian residents. The least diverse district is Area 6, which is 77.48% Hispanic, has the lowest percentage of White, second lowest percentage of Native American and Pacific Islander, and third lowest percentage of Black residents.

Area 6 has the fewest number of eligible voters with 10,871 and Area 1 has highest number of eligible voters with 15,270.

Trustee Megan Casebeer Soleno asked if current board members will be allowed to complete their terms if the end up residing in a new area after redistricting. Smith said would finish out their term and would be required to run for election in their new district if they wanted to retain a seat on the school board.

VUSD has until Feb. 28, 2022 to complete the process in time for candidates to file for school board seats up for election in November 2022. If the school board doesn’t redistrict by Feb. 28, 2022, the task will be taken over by the Tulare County Committee on School District Organization, comprised of 11 current or former members of local school boards and school district administrations. Two are selected from each of the five supervisorial districts plus an at-large member.

The committee must adjust district boundaries by April 30, 2022.

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