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Bill Farris, SSUSD School Board President / Laura Austin Photo

SSUSD votes to change at large elections to trustee area elections

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–

Bill Farris, current President of the Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD) Board of Directors, tells us that in December, the Board voted to change from an at large voting system to a trustee area election system.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 “went into law to try and allow for better representation of what we call underrepresented individuals. And so, over the years, a lot of districts and county governments have restructured their election process in order to make it more accessible to minorities and underrepresented individuals. SSUSD reviewed its structure about 12 years ago and determined that there was no advantage to going to trustee areas because the homogeneous nature of the community was such that you could not really develop what we call a minority-majority district.

“There has been significant pressure to encourage local districts to go to a trustee area” due to advantages for candidates. “For instance, in the at large system, you run against all people within the district who want to serve and you’re essentially required to influence everyone in that district. So when you go to a trustee area, each person is only elected by the people in their trustee area, and you have to live within that trustee area to run. This means the people that you influence to try and get elected are just that smaller area. So, by nature of magnitude, it is less costly to influence.

“Part of the law allows for a Regional District or a representative government to be legally challenged if they have not gone to trustee areas. That challenge generates an immediate financial obligation by the district or region to pay for the challenger’s attorney fees. The challenger can be anyone. So far, no one has been successful in fighting off that challenge.

“For the sake of protecting the resources of the district, the Board did vote to pursue the trustee area.”      

One can view the map on the SSUSD website on the School Board page.   

In addition to his responsibilities as President, Farris has been selected to represent Kern and Tulare counties as a member of the California School Board Association (CSBA). Farris has been on the local school board for many years, serving several one-year terms as President.

Farris explains how the CSBA benefits us locally, “I think the most powerful thing that the CSBA does is give the tools for local school boards to develop a working team that can be effective in their job, both by describing how the work should be done and training the teams on this is how you do the work. This is how you work together. This is how you bring all your passions to the table but then meld them into a system that works. And this is what we keep focused on: the education we provide for our kids. And here are the policies that will help you do that. And as legislation comes up and as you have concerns, here’s the department that can help us influence legislature so that you can do your work best.”

Farris attends about five CSBA board meetings per year, where the board gets reports on what the association has been doing. “We take positions on issues that are current; we set the mission and vision for the organization. We approve the policy platform and we oversee the executive director.” He also serves on committees that call for several meetings. “Currently, I serve on what’s called the Board Development Committee and the Finance Committee.”

He believes his longest-term contribution through his CSBA membership is a one-page document that is printed as a pamphlet. “It essentially lays out for school board members in a pretty concise way what local school board members’ jobs are, what it looks like if you do it well, and then how to do it. It’s a very helpful document. You know, people have a real variety of understandings of what school board members do and most of the time, it’s not accurate. And so this particular document really helps focus in on what the real role is, what the responsibilities are, and how you can best do it.”

The CSBA has about 31 members. The Association has a large staff that does the research and provides information to the Board; from there, the Board sets policy and provides oversight. After 11 years as a Board Member, Farris is well-versed in CSBA; he tells us, “The purpose of the California School Boards Association is to support local school boards. They do that in a number of ways. Primarily, they provide training and support and advocacy for local boards and their ability to make decisions locally. They do research on educational policy issues to help support school boards. When people are elected, they provide school board member training. They provide training for boards on how to work together and how to develop good teams, and they provide policy services. So when there are changes in the law, they will notify districts, ‘The law is changing. You’ll want to change your policy so it’s consistent with the law. Here are some suggested things to think about.’ So they have suggested policies. Then we will review and alter to our local district.”

Farris shares an example of how the CSBA assists with legal support. A coach was terminated because he led prayer at the end of each game. The concern:  “Was that led by the authority figure of the school, or was it just personal? Because it had specific implications for all schools, the Legal Alliance, which is a department of the CSPA, then supported that case so that it didn’t just all fall on the local district. And so that when the decision came out, it could say, ‘Okay, here’s what the ruling is, and here’s how it affects you and your local district.’ The Supreme Court ruled that it was not an infringement, that he had the right because it was not required to participate. This was actually kind of a surprise ruling.

“We provide legislative advocacy as well. We have a department that works with the State Department of Education to advise on what school boards are interested in. State legislatures are very active and the governor is very active in deciding what policies they believe (will benefit school districts). A significant part of our role as an association is to represent those school districts in the discussions at the legislature to say, ‘No, here’s what we believe ought to happen.’ So, one of the things that the association does is develop what we call our policy platform.  And that platform says, ‘Here are the things, as local boards, we believe are important if you’re considering legislation, what kinds of concepts, what kind of principles ought to be in place.’ Probably the one most discussed is what we call local control. We believe most decisions are best made at the local level because California is a very diverse state. And what works in LA Unified may be the absolute wrong thing for SSUSD. Unfortunately, so much state legislation is focused on the larger concentration areas where there are significant numbers of people, and our world is very different from their world.

“We advocate based on those basic policies.” They meet with legislators and try to influence and educate them on how their proposed legislation will affect local districts. And then they spread the word. “That’s a really important part of our work as well. So again, there’s a pretty big staff that does that. But they activate the board members, and basically, there are about 1000 school boards in California, an average of about five members per board. So there’s about 5000 people right there that can actually advocate for those issues.”