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Activists, teachers call school board's replacement-pick side step undemocratic, push for special election

When Ellyn Bell decided to leave the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees earlier this year—so she could live closer to a new job in San Francisco—her colleagues on the board decided it was too late and too expensive to call an election to fill her seat.

They decided instead to pick their own replacement to represent the district’s Area 1 (Land Park, Curtis Park and the grid) for the remainder of Bell’s term, which ends in December 2014.

This is allowed by state education law. But some community activists and labor leaders say it’s undemocratic and are now calling for a special election to replace Bell.

And they’re threatening a petition drive that would force an election, even if the board makes its own pick, which is expected to happen on December 20.

Annette Deglow is leading the effort. She was also one of the community activists who helped to write and pass measures J and K, which brought area elections to the district and replaced the at-large system in 2006. Deglow says the school board’s decision to appoint a new board member rather than allowing area residents to pick their own representative undermines the system voters put in place just a few years ago.

“It flies in the face of J and K,” said Deglow. “We will challenge the appointment, whoever it is.”

If the board decides to go ahead with its plan to appoint a new member, Deglow and company would have 30 days from the time of the appointment to collect 2,454 signatures, which would force the district to hold a special election to fill the seat.

If the petitioners turn in enough valid signatures, the election would likely wind up being held in the summer of 2013. That means the new board member elected at that time wouldn’t be seated until December 2013. And this raises the possibility of having multiple board members rotate through that seat until the next regular election in 2014.

Bell took the San Francisco job in the spring. Had she given notice at that time, her seat could have been up for election on last November’s ballot.

The other big argument against a special election is that costs are too high. County election officials estimate the cost from $155,000 to $280,000.

Brad Buyse with the Sacramento County elections department said the school district could opt for a “mail-in ballot only” election, which could save money, because the county could then avoid setting up polling places. But Buyse said he didn’t have enough information to give an estimate.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association and other district labor unions are supporting the call for a special election. SCTA president Scott Smith said the board often finds money if the cause is important to them. For example, “They had $500,000 to spend on City Year,” a program which places AmeriCorps members in struggling schools.

“The difference is that if we spend money on an election, that is going to go to an election bureaucrat,” countered board member Jeff Cuneo.

Cuneo is concerned about the costs of the election and also expressed frustration that the push for the special election didn’t happen sooner. “We had hearings, and nobody said anything about a special election. Where were [these] guys a month ago?”

As the board has closed in on an appointment, there have been persistent rumors that one of the candidates, Bina Lefkovitz, had already lined up four votes needed to get the job. She has some very powerful friends supporting her, including California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. And she’s married to Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer, who is also a professional education consultant.

But Cuneo said “it’s just not true” that Lefkovitz is a lock for the appointment. “I’m undecided at this point.”

Deglow said the process is suspect, no matter who gets appointed. “This should have been on the ballot. Those candidates aren’t out there trying to work the residents of Area 1. They are trying to work the board members.”