The District’s districts

Photo By DENNIS MYERS Washoe County School Board member Barbara Clark explains her demand that the public be given more information on the demographics of proposed school board districts. Board members John Mayer, center, and Scott Kelley listen.

If anyone who spent much time at this year’s Nevada Legislature was in attendance at last week’s Washoe County School Board meeting, there had to be a feeling of déjà vu.

During discussion of how to redraw the election districts within the Washoe County School District, board members ran up against exactly the issues that divided the legislators.

None of the current members were on the school board the last time it was redistricted in 2001, so they are learning the process as they go. Part of that education was a briefing last week by their attorney, Randy Drake, explaining the U.S. Voting Rights Act and federal court rulings that have an impact on redistricting plans across the nation.

Particularly at issue is Nevada’s rapidly growing Latino population, which is considered a “community of interest”—a legal term generally meaning a fairly contiguous population sharing common social and economic interests. The law recognizes the importance to such communities of being contained within their own districts.

At the Legislature earlier this year, Republicans proposed a plan under which Latinos—who make up 26.5 percent of the state’s population—were packed into a single U.S. House district, giving them a majority in that district. Democrats proposed a plan in which Latinos were made the dominant force in three U.S. House districts, but not a majority in any of them.

When the Legislature approved the Democratic plan, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it in part on grounds that it violated the Voting Rights Act.

That stalemated the Legislature, which adjourned for the year and went home without redistricting at all.

In briefing the Washoe school board members last week, Drake told them that when a community of interest makes up less than 50 percent of a district, pulling additional members of that community into the district to create a majority is a violation of the law.

“Yes, that would be packing that district with that minority population in violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Drake said in response to a question from school board member Dan Carne.

That prompted Carne to raise the issue that the Legislature faced—whether it is of greater assistance to members of a community of interest to give them a district of their own in which they can elect one of their members, or more than one district to increase their overall voting strength and the responsiveness of the governing body to them. Carne referred specifically to Sun Valley, a heavily Latino area that is currently split between two school board districts.

Carne asked, “Are they better represented by John [Mayer] and Barbara [Clark], each representing part of Sun Valley and therefore having two voices on the board, or are they better represented by all of Sun Valley being in John’s district and having one voice? … Are they better represented from their standpoint with two representatives or one?” The italics represent emphasis in Carne’s voice.

Drake and district staffers drew up several proposed districts for the school board members to consider. The new district plan will apply to the 2012 election, and the districts will be drawn after the board holds public meetings where they can gauge public sentiment.

One of the proposals, Plan One, seemed to be particularly unpopular with a couple of board members who said it should be dropped and not even shown to the public because it disrupts existing districts too severely—“But I would say plan number one is so ridiculous as far as taking and redoing Mr. Kelley’s and my areas,” said board member Ken Grein, also referring to his colleague Scott Kelley. “I mean, complete opposite—it’s just like moving to another whole area. It’s moving completely out of any area I have now, so I would say pull plan number one, take the rest on the road, and let’s hear what they say.” Kelley agreed.

School Superintendent Heath Morrison urged that if the board was really opposed to that proposal, they should drop it before going to public meetings in order to avoid dangling a proposal with no chance of adoption before the public—“If you invite people to be part of the decision and you’ve already made the decision, then you’ve upset them twice,” he said.

Among audience members were Theresa Navarro and Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Navarro said of communities of interest, “If they are small, that means don’t crack them between multiple districts. If they are large, don’t pack them into one district.”

Fulkerson has more experience with redistricting than the board, because he has been through other redistricting battles over the years. He said the board members need to thread a policy needle—not create artificial majorities of the kind Drake described, but a community of interest “shouldn’t be thinned out” over several districts, either, so that its influence is dissipated. This last technique was found invalid in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Thornburg v. Gingles.

As it happened, Fulkerson said, the plan that came closest to threading that needle was Plan One. “The one that comes closest to that, ironically, is the one that you’re talking about eliminating, and that’s Plan One,” he said.

Nevertheless, before concluding the meeting, the board dropped Plan One from the proposals it will take to the public. In a statement, Fulkerson later said the board dropped “the one map … that had any semblance of hope for creating districts where a person of color could be elected because it changed too drastically the lines for two incumbents. All the maps they are releasing for public comment now appear to ‘crack’ or attenuate the voting power of communities of color by spreading them evenly out among all the districts. Also, Sun Valley, as a ‘Community of Interest’ looks to be split in two. Some members of the school board said this would allow them to have two representatives. In all likelihood, it will mean Sun Valley won’t have the power to elect one person to represent it.”

Two other issues were raised at the meeting. Fulkerson said the two at-large seats on the seven member boards should be gotten rid of in favor of seven districts to bring down the cost of running for office. And school board member Barbara Clark said she wanted enhanced data provided to the public before public meetings on the proposed districts are held. She held up a map of about 11 by 17 inches and said such scale does not allow the public to know what they are dealing with.

“So I think if we send the map out there … they could care less,” she said. “But I can’t tell from looking at this map … whether any of the lines that we have drawn either make an issue or delete an issue.”

Fulkerson called this kind of public access to the demographics “absolutely essential. That should be a no-brainer. We need to err on the side of more information.”

She said computer-based information on the demographics of each precinct, including the ethnic makeup, can be obtained from the Nevada Legislature and put into user-friendly form so the public will understand what is involved in drawing up districts.

Perhaps because political parties are not involved, perhaps because the school board is a smaller forum, school board members showed no sign of the kind of impasse that prevented the Legislature from enacting a redistricting plan.

Gov. Brian Sandoval appealed the Legislature’s failure to adopt a plan to state court. Instead of ruling on whether the legislators were in compliance with the law, Judge Todd Russell effectively seized control of the process and is drawing up a redistricting plan of his own through a panel of court advisors. It is not clear how Russell’s plan will be legally adopted, unless Russell imposes it by judicial fiat, because constitutionally only the Nevada Legislature has the authority to redistrict.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.