By Srishti Prabha | OBSERVER Staff Writer
School boards received national attention this past year when the election, and specifically conversations about race, politicized the nonpartisan office.
Sacramento County’s elections witnessed this to a lesser degree, where the so-called “red wave” was kept at bay, but the contentious political discourse infiltrated the region’s education sphere.
In this climate, San Juan Unified School District’s board race heightened mounting tension when a Proud Boy announced his candidacy. He made statements that “race and equity are being pushed in schools” and called “schools unsafe for free thought.”
Black school board member Zima Creason ran for re-election in the same district as the Proud Boy candidate. “That was more of a motivation for me to stay in this position,” Creason said.
Sacramento County has some of the most heterogeneous school campuses in California. And its board members hold a powerful role, acting as the cultural threshold for equity in school settings.
But a CapRadio and Sacramento OBSERVER analysis of four diverse districts in the county – Sacramento City Unified, Natomas, San Juan and Elk Grove – reveals that many communities are underrepresented or not represented at all on their respective boards.
For example, the Latinx or Hispanics are the largest student population in Sacramento Unified, at 40%. But there are no Hispanic or Latinx board members.
Black, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Indigenous students are consistently underrepresented on these school boards. White board members, meanwhile, overrepresent their student demographic.
Who serves on our boards can affect real change, according to Dr. Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA.
“Race matters,” Howard said. “And schools have frequently been the testing ground of how we think about racial equity in this country going back decades.”
He also says school board representation “should include a variety of people with different lived experiences” who can better design schools to serve their communities.
Newly elected Sacramento City Unified school board trustee Jasjit Singh threw his hat in the race during the teachers’ strike last year. As a former teacher and a Sikh-American, he says he resonated with the student, parent and teacher misgivings about education equity.
“‘Does anybody want to really step up and take on this huge, monumental task of shifting the way Sacramento’s City Unified School District works?’” Singh asked himself.
“That’s going to require courageous conversations.”
Race, Representation And Sacramento School Boards
In 2020, researchers who had been mulling over ethnic disparities in punishment outcomes nationally concluded that diversity in positions of authority in school settings “foster a more equitable approach to the administration of student punishment.”
The researchers focused on teacher diversity. But the power of a school board in a district parallels that of a teacher in a classroom, as trustees can assess personnel, create disciplinary structures, dictate curriculum and distribute funds from the budget.
California School Board Association’s Chief Information Officer Troy Flint hopes that, over the next decade, the school boards will encompass the varying needs of all students.
“We want everyone to feel that they have a stake in their community, a stake in their schools,” he said. “People who are of a certain background — whether that’s low income, whether that’s from a certain ethnicity, whether that’s urban or rural — may have some insight that could be helpful and that’s why it’s good to have a diverse school board.”
Homogenous school boards are not unique to Sacramento. Hispanic/Latinx communities make up the second largest population in California at 40%. However, Flint noted that Hispanic/Latinx people only hold 20% of the school board seats in the state.
Sacramento County’s racial and ethnic representation on school boards vary by district and often underrepresent a variety of marginalized communities.
Sacramento City Unified serves large swaths of the city, from downtown and South Sacramento to parts of Rancho Cordova. The largest student demographic in this region is Hispanic/Latinx — a group that is absent on the school board.
Jasjit Singh is the only Asian American on the board and represents 14% of students in the district. Aware of the disparities in educational outcomes for Black and Brown students, he says his job is to listen and advocate.
“I know what it feels like to be left out,” Singh said. “And I want to make sure I’m providing a voice for [students] who have been historically left out.”
Meanwhile, the board is overrepresented by white trustees, who take up 54% of the board seats and make up 16% of the student population. The same holds for Black representatives, who hold 28% of the seats and make up 14% of the student population.
Natomas Unified covers north and south Natomas including portions near the Sacramento International Airport (SMF). In this region, like in Sacramento City Unified, Hispanic/Latinx students are also the largest demographic. But unlike in Sacramento City, this demographic is overrepresented on the Natomas school board, with 60% of board seats representing 32% of the student population.
The board is 40% Black and overrepresents the 17% of Black students who make up the district’s population.
In this district, the Asian American student subgroup is the second largest, but does not have any representation on the board.
Overrepresentation for the marginalized communities on school boards can lead to more positive outcomes in districts like Natomas, where up to 60% of Black and Brown students are not meeting math and literacy standards.
Recent school board addition, first-generation Mexican-American and a Natomas Unified graduate Noel Mora says education and civic engagement have been pivotal in his upbringing, and a tool for empowerment. He says local government was difficult to navigate for his family and, to this day, continues to be an unfamiliar space.
When he was getting sworn-in to the school board, he says his parents refused to sit in the reserved seats in the front.
“They were adamant that they were going to sit in the back.” Mora said. “I have helped them, in some ways, to feel more comfortable with [local government] systems.”
He says cultivating a safe space for minority students in Natomas Unified is one of his many goals on the school board.
Elk Grove Unified, which includes all of Elk Grove and southern parts of the county, is the fifth largest school district in the state and the largest in northern California.
The biggest demographic group in Elk Grove Unified is Hispanic/Latinx, and they hold 43% of the board seats. White board members hold 29%, and Black students, who are 11% of the population, are unaccounted for on the board.
Thai refugee of Laotian descent Sean Yang ran for the Elk Grove Unified board in 2020 when he didn’t see a Southeast Asian trustee sitting on the district’s dais.
“With the school district being very diverse, and Asian being the most diverse part, it made even more sense for me to run so that I can be a voice for that group,” Yang said. But he felt his purpose wasn’t just to his own community. “It’s just not serving that minority, I’m serving the whole [student body].”
Still, Asian American communities, which are the second largest student demographic, are underrepresented at 14% on the Elk Grove board.
In San Juan Unified, which includes neighborhoods between Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, and Arden-Arcade, the largest student demographic is white, and they hold the majority of board seats.
At 29%, the second-largest student demographic is Hispanic/Latinx, who hold an equivalent percentage of seats. The next largest is Asian American, which is not represented on the school board.
Black students are slightly overrepresented on the board, with 14% of seats despite making up only 7% of the student population.
Zima Creason, the district’s school board president, is the only Black board member. She says she has to represent an array of community members that vary from conservative to liberal.
“Let these adult emotions take the back seat because they have no place,” Creason said. “And we’re really just making things harder for the kids when we’re putting the divisive stances on the table.”
For her, the focus should be on needs of the students and she says attempts to backburner political discussion during school board sessions, which is a necessary task in a district where 50% of students require free and reduced lunch.
The Next Generation Of School Boards
In all four districts, there is a need for increased representation of Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American, Indigenous and Black students.
White representation is either consistently on par with the student population or, in some districts, overrepresented.
Asian American and Indigenous student populations are the most underrepresented or absent in Sacramento’s County’s school boards.
Trustees elected-at-large say that the county’s 2022 redistricting, or re-drawing of school district boundaries, and change in election strategy led to potential mismatched representation on the county’s boards.
Paula Villescaz, who was elected-at-large in San Juan Unified, says she could sense the cultural shift on the board when it expanded from five to seven members. She said that during the November election, candidates transitioned from running a campaign for an entire school district to running in an area within the district.
“I knew that that would be a big change,” Villescaz said. “But seeing how those actions influence the day-to-day work has been interesting.”
Education expert Howard says that representation on school boards can drastically flip every election season due so few seats. He also cautions that a proportional racial representation on boards is just the first step in addressing the opportunity gap. There are foundational issues in education that require transformative thought, he explains, and existing education models have had a pernicious effect on marginalized students.
“I want us to be careful to assume that just because you have ethnic and racial diversity on a school board, it means that issues that are pertaining to racial equity in education are going to be a priority,” Howard said.
Flint from California’s School Board Association shares a similar opinion, but says it is important to contextualize that school boards have been historically white, and continue to be.
“We are seeing increasing diversity among school board members but it’s not directly reflective to the student demographics,” Flint said. “But given the baseline that we’re working from, I don’t think we’re going to see that for perhaps a generation.”
Reflective school boards, though not a pipedream, are a decade or more away, says Flint. Trustees of color like Singh, Mora, and Creason assume the responsibility of correcting the systemic educational disparities for students of color – a narrative to which they are more closely tied.
Sacramento County’s boards are beginning to have the “courageous conversations” driven by trustees of color and more diverse schools boards. Their priorities – instituting career and technical programs, changing disciplinary structures, and considering in-language tutoring – are moving the needle on what inclusive education can be for Sacramento’s students of color.
Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.