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Frequently Asked Questions

Why consider the transition to a "by-trustee area" election system now?

Like more than 70 other cities and 180 school districts across the state, the Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD) is starting the process to change how voters elect Governing Board Members. MDUSD received a letter from a local resident demanding that School Board elections transition from the current "at-large" election method to a "by-trustee area" election method in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) or risk an expensive lawsuit. The MDUSD Governing Board of Trustees has decided to take advantage of recent legislation (AB 350) that provides a short window of opportunity to discuss, invite public input, and ultimately decide on a district-based election process without court intervention. Upon adoption, the District is provided additional time to conduct public hearings prior to a resolution ordering the transition to a "by-trustee area" election system (Elections Code Section 10010). On May 13, 2019, the MDUSD Governing Board adopted a resolution declaring its intent to transition to a "by-trustee area" election system.

What is the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA)?

The CVRA prohibits the use of any election system “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” Jurisdictions can be sued if they elect their governing body using an “at-large,” “from-districts,” or a mixed election system. If the court finds against a jurisdiction, the jurisdiction must change its election system and pay the plaintiff’s attorneys, experts, and other expenses.

How is the CVRA different from the Federal Voting Rights Act (FVRA)?

The CVRA was adopted in 2002 and is based upon the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (FVRA) with some important differences that make "at-large" election systems much more susceptible to legal challenges. For a plaintiff to be successful in a claim of violation under the FVRA relating to "at-large" elections, the plaintiff must show that: 1) a minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to form a majority of the eligible voters in a single-member district; 2) there is racially-polarized voting; and 3) there is “white bloc voting” (the term used by the courts reviewing such cases) sufficient usually to prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice. If a plaintiff proves these three elements, then the federal court will consider whether, under the “totality of circumstances,” the votes of minority voters are diluted by the at-large election system.

The CVRA removes two of these factors. It eliminates what is known as the “geographically compact” FVRA precondition (i.e., can a majority-minority district be drawn) as well as the “totality of the circumstances” or “reasonableness” test. Because the CVRA eliminates some of the elements that a plaintiff must prove, defending a lawsuit brought pursuant to the CVRA is more difficult to defend against than a claim under the FVRA. As a result of the lower threshold for proving a claim under the CVRA, many jurisdictions have voluntarily switched to district-based election systems instead of facing litigation.


What’s the difference between “at large” elections and “by-trustee area” elections? MDUSD currently has an "at-large" election system where voters of the entire school district elect all members of the School Board. A “by-trustee area” election system will carve MDUSD's area of service into "by-trustee areas." Voters in each "by-trustee area" will choose their School Board representative, who must also live in that "by-trustee area."

How have other school districts responded to the threat of litigation under the CVRA? Many school districts have changed their election method voluntarily or by court order. Agencies that have attempted to defend their at-large election systems have incurred significant legal costs. Here are a few examples of the legal costs that other cities or districts paid defending their "at-large" election systems: Palmdale - $4.7 million, Santa Clara -$3.1 million, Modesto - $3 million, Anaheim - $1.1 million, Santa Barbara - $600,000, and West Covina - $220,000.

How will transitioning to a "by-trustee area" election system affect me?

If approved, registered voters in the school district's boundaries will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate for School Board that lives in their "by-trustee area." Registered voters will not be able to vote for School Board candidates from "by-trustee areas" in which they do not reside.



How many "by-trustee areas" will be considered?

At this time, the Board will be considering a map that includes five "by-trustee areas."

How many School Board members will be elected?

The School Board will be considering maps that include five "by-trustee areas." Once the School Board adopts a "by-trustee area" map, the number of "by-trustee areas" in that map will determine the number of Board of Education members that will be elected in the future.

How can I help shape the "by-trustee areas"?

The Board is conducting community meetings and public hearings to receive community feedback on the proposed "by-trustee areas." Two public hearings will be held before the release of draft maps, and at these hearings residents will be asked to provide input on potential “communities of interest” to follow when shaping draft "by-trustee area" maps. There will be two (or more) additional public hearings at subsequent School Board meetings. The Board will consider a resolution establishing "by-trustee area" elections, "by-trustee area" boundaries, and when each "by-trustee areas" election will be held.

What draft maps will be considered by the Board?

The Board will consider one or more draft maps prepared by a professional demographer.

When will the maps be available to the public?

There were community input meetings on August 21, 22, and 29, and September 11, 2019 with proposed maps being presented. On or before September 16, 2019, the draft maps for Board consideration were posted on the District’s website. 


What input will the public have on map selection?

Once the maps are released for public review on the MDUSD website (on or before Monday, September 16, 2019), the Governing Board will have three public hearings, first on September 23, 2019, second on October 14, 2019, and third on October 28, 2019 during which it will take public testimony regarding the draft maps. Members of the public and interested parties also have the option of submitting written comments on the draft maps, including which map or maps they support.

What criteria will be used to select the final map?

Assuming that the Board chooses to adopt a map and go to "by-trustee area" elections, the Board will consider a range of factors in selecting the final map including (but not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the areas, visible boundaries, respect for voters’ wishes, and continuity in office.

What is a community of interest?

A community of interest is any distinctive area within the school district boundaries that has a definable group of people, unique geography or some other distinguishable feature or characteristic that it would be undesirable to divide in the creation of "by-trustee areas." Some of these may already be clearly established and others may be defined as a result of this process. This distinction requires strong community input to ensure communities of interest are protected in this process.

How will written communications be memorialized during the public hearing process? All written communications will be provided to the Board and will be part of the public record. The Board will consider the public record as part of its determination on the number of areas to consider and how the final district map will be configured, if the Board chooses to adopt a "by-trustee area" map.

How will the final map be chosen?

The Board will consider a range of factors if it chooses to select a district map of five geographic areas as part of the transition to a "by-trustee area" election system. These factors include (but are not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the areas, visible boundaries, and respect for voters’ wishes and continuity in office.

What is the timeline for the change?

The timeline is prescribed by California Election Code 10010. The District is posting a timeline on its website as circumstances change.

When will these new "by-trustee area" elections take effect?

If approved, the new "by-trustee area" elections would not become effective until the election in November 2020. However, the specific date on which a Board of Education Trustee will be elected from each of the new geographic areas (i.e., either in November 2020 or November 2022) will be determined as part of the resolution that adopts the new districts.

Will all five Governing Board member seats be open for election at the District’s next general election (2020)?

No. The District’s November 2018 elections seated three Members for four-year terms through 2022. In 2020, the District will have two Governing Board seats up for election during its first "by-trustee area" election. Other public entities that have litigated allegations of CVRA violations and, after receiving unfavorable court decisions, on occasion have been ordered by the court to hold a special election to refill all seats - that is not the case here.

What happens if draft map options draw multiple current Governing Board members within the boundaries of a single "trustee-area"?

Under all circumstances, all Governing Board members serve out their full terms of office. Specifically, the Education Code contemplated transitions from "at-large" to "by-trustee area" elections in Education Code § 5021(a) which states, in pertinent part, that “[i]f a proposal for the establishment [of trustee area elections] is approved . . . any affected incumbent board member shall serve out his or her term of office...”


While draft map options have been prepared by the District’s demographer, it is possible that a map will be selected with more than one Governing Board member living within a single trustee area. Whether or not such a scenario will exist depends on population density data and the locations of residences of Governing Board members. In such a scenario, if all Governing Board members within a given trustee area have terms that expire simultaneously (i.e. 2022), those members serve their full terms but only one may win re-election from the "trustee area" within which they reside – or a challenger can prevail in that area’s 2022 election.


Alternatively, a given trustee area may be home to multiple Governing Board Members whose current terms have different expiration dates (i.e., one Governing Board Member’s term expires in 2020 while another’s expires in 2022). In such cases, the Governing Board member whose term expires in 2020 will term out in December 2020 if the area in which he or she lives is not up for election. He or she is permitted to run in 2022 when that "trustee area" seat is available or may establish residency and become domiciled within a "trustee area" open for election in 2020.

If multiple Governing Board members end up paired within a single "trustee area," how does the Board determine the election sequence of "trustee areas" not currently inhabited by Governing Board members?

The transition to a "by-trustee area" election system requires the Board to consider election sequencing. Not all Board member seats will be up for election at the same time. For MDUSD, two seats are available in 2020 for election and three seats are available in 2022. When multiple Board members reside in the same "trustee area," at least one created "trustee area" will be vacant of a current Governing Board member at the time a map option is adopted by the District.


While not strictly bound by law to select two particular trustee areas for election in 2020, in order to determine the sequence of which "trustee areas" are to hold elections next, the Board will consider the guidance of Election Code section 10010(b):

“In determining the final sequence of the district elections conducted in a political subdivision in which members of the governing body will be elected at different times to provide for staggered terms of office, the governing body shall give special consideration to the purpose of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001...and it shall take into account the preferences expressed by members of the districts.”

The purpose of the CVRA is to increase the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election. As such, the Board intends to select a trustee area or areas that have the highest percentage of eligible voters (also known as Citizen Voting Age Population or CVAP) of members of protected classes to be first available to hold elections.

Notwithstanding the Board’s preference for election sequencing, Education Code section 5021(a) authorizes the County Committee on School District Organization to “determine by lot the trustee area from which the nomination and vacancy on the governing board shall be made.” In other words, the County Committee on School District Organization has the authority to determine the "trustee areas" eligible for the next vacancy by lot.

Is it best to ask questions about the area formation process at the Public Hearings? Does the Public Hearings format allow for questions to be addressed?

The purpose of these public hearings is for community members and the Board to comment on the potential composition of "trustee areas."

In practicality, the Board will open the public hearing and the demographer will briefly explain the process and describe the type of feedback being sought at this stage.

When the presentation concludes, members of the public can submit a request to speak, approach the podium, and comment. At this stage, it is not uncommon to receive questions about the process as opposed to actual feedback. Usually, once draft maps are released to the public there tends to be an uptick in public participation. After these public hearings, the demographer will take that feedback and prepare legally permissible maps that attempt to take that public feedback into consideration while still balancing population and other factors.

When will the 2020 U.S. Census data be considered for the formulation of the By-Trustee Area Election System maps?

Adjustments to the "by-trustee area" maps would need to be considered and adjusted in 2021 based on the 2020 U.S. Census data results.

Following each decennial federal census, Education Code 5019.5 specifically requires school districts with "trustee area" elections to adjust boundaries of any or all trustee areas of the district to ensure that one or both of the following conditions is satisfied:

  1. The population of each area is, as nearly as may be, the same proportion of the total population of the district as the ratio that the number of governing board members elected from the area bears to the total number of members of the governing board.
  2. The population of each area is, as nearly as may be, the same proportion of the total population of the district as each of the other areas.

(Education Code section 5019.5(a).)

The District is required to make any such adjustment by the first day of March of the year following the release of the new decennial census data. Therefore, the current census is used for the 2020 election but, depending on potential population growth and movement depicted via the 2020 census, the "trustee area" map lines may need to be adjusted to achieve equal population in advance of the 2022 election.

What if there is no candidate in one of the "by-trustee areas"?

There is a limited 25-day window for candidates to file declarations of candidacy with the County Registrar to run for office. This narrow window opens 113 days prior to the election and closes 88 days prior to the election. If no qualified candidate emerges from a "trustee area" up for election, the Board may appoint to fill the vacancy from a resident of that "trustee area."

Unlike ordinary appointments, according to Education Code section 5326, if no candidate has been nominated by 83 days prior to the election, the Board is authorized to appoint a qualified person to the Board. Such appointment must occur at a Board meeting prior to election day and the appointed member will be "seated" to the Board at the organizational meeting. Unlike most vacancies, vacancies and appointments due to failure to elect result in the appointee serving "as if elected" – for the full term. (Education Code section 5328.)

The District's Board Bylaw (BB) 9223 Filling Vacancies describes the process for finding qualified candidates to appoint. Specifically, the District is required to advertise in the local media to solicit candidate applications or nominations and a committee consisting of less than a quorum of the Board shall ensure that applicants are eligible for Board membership and announce the names of the eligible candidates. The Board shall interview the candidates at a public meeting, accept oral or written public input, and select the provisional appointee by a majority vote. (BB 9223; see also Education Code section 5328.5.)

Importantly, the appointee must be eligible for office and reside within the specific vacant "trustee area." The appointment must be made at a Board meeting prior to election day. The appointed member will serve as if elected in the general election – for four years.

Why is MDUSD being divided into five "by-trustee areas"?

Pursuant to Education Code section 35012, the default number of trustees for a given school district is five. In certain circumstances, a unified school district may be formed with, or increase its number of trustees to, seven members. Also, elementary school districts with daily attendance of under 300 students are permitted to have as few as three trustees. While there is a process that permits school districts to move from five to seven or from seven to five trustees, the recent and ongoing transition to a "by-trustee area" election system does not impact the number of trustees representing and governing the District. Instead, this transition only alters the method by which trustees are elected. Since MDUSD is governed by a five Trustee Board, the draft map options will each create five "trustee areas."

Have additional questions or concerns? Send them to:

Larry Schoenke,, 925-682-8000, ext. 4001, or 925-251-8505.