School Board Leans Toward District Map Choice

First published in the Dec. 17 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

Although it won’t vote on a selection until at least January, the school board seemed to favor one of the three maps being considered as the school system transitions to five geographical political districts.
Based on discussions at Tuesday’s meeting, most board members indicated that Map 1 had emerged as their preferred option, based on the populations of the five proposed school board districts and how the boundaries are drawn. However, the board will have its fourth and final public hearing on the maps at its Jan. 11 meeting, after which it may take a vote. It has until the end of February to decide on a map.

The South Pasadena Unified School District, long governed by five board members elected at-large by the entire district’s voting population, is for the first time transitioning to geographical trustee areas. Though the board will continue to set policy and direction for the entire district, they will each be elected only by voters in their trustee areas and must live in those zones.
“We were very interested as a board in making sure we had as much representation across school boundaries as possible,” Patricia Martinez-Miller, the board’s new clerk, summarized on Tuesday, “because our goal is to stay, as a board, focused on the needs of all of our schools.”
The decision was motivated in part by a goal to promote better representative opportunities among South Pasadena’s wide demographics and is timed with what is “redistricting” season for other political entities. SPUSD’s consulting firm, National Demographic Corporation, was tasked with drawing districts containing roughly 5,398 residents, based on the 2020 U.S. Census results. The school district wanted each trustee area to include at least two of the three elementary attendance zones. (Since there are only one middle and high schools, all five members will by default directly represent those interests.)
Martinez-Miller was first out the gate after the presentation Tuesday, signaling her approval of Map 1 based mostly on the fairly even ratio of homeownership across all five areas. She also seemed to appreciate the relative symmetry of how many representatives get a school zone and vice versa.
“In looking at the representation across schools, it is the one map that has the greatest number of board members affiliated with the greatest number of schools by attendance area,” Martinez-Miller said.
Board President Zahir Robb and board member Karissa Adams also showed a preference to the first map. Board member Ruby Kalra, though admitting she had not had a chance to dive into the data points yet, said she appreciated the compactness of the second map but acknowledged that it isn’t the end-all — especially when hilly neighborhoods dictate odd street and neighborhood patterns.
“It is hard when you look at it in squares,” Robb added, in complement to Kalra. “Aesthetically, you’re right, that looks the cleanest, but then you have to look at natural boundaries. This isn’t a topographical map, so it’s tricky.”
Drawing these districts is often a delicate balancing act, because beyond attaining the desired population number, these districts are legally barred from diluting individual population groups deemed as protected, such as Black or Latino residents. Guidelines also stipulate that sub-communities, such as distinct neighborhoods, remain as intact as possible, and that voting districts are drawn as compact as feasible.
“Drawing the map is simple, but not easy,” explained Ken Chawkins, a consultant with National Demographics. “There are all kinds of maps to hit that target number, but it’s not easy to get the right balance … so that people are being represented in a way that gives them a fair shot at representation.”
Map 1 had the smallest population deviation of the three, at just 2.41%, meaning that number represents the largest population gap between any two individual districts. Each district includes two elementary attendance areas and all elementary areas have at least two representatives, and district four notably has a 39% Asian American citizen voting age population, or CVAP — meaning that 39% of its American citizens 18 or older are Asian.
“You’re not trying to create that as much as you’re trying to prevent dilution of it, if that makes sense,” Chawkins noted.
Map 2, which is the most compact, has a 2.61% deviation, and again has all trustee areas with two elementary attendance zones, with each zone having at least two representatives. In fact, district five on this map has all three elementary zones. District four in this map has a 42% Asian American CVAP.
Map 3 has a 3.67% deviation and managed to have boundaries giving each elementary school at least three representatives. Additionally, districts four and five on this map have all three elementary zones included. District five this time has a significant Asian American CVAP, at 36%.
The board elected to have all three maps brought back for the January meeting, and also directed the district administration with continuing to circulate the maps and their information throughout SPUSD’s various stakeholders ahead of time. Voters will first experience voting by district in November’s election.
There were no public comments advanced at Tuesday’s meeting.