Modesto City Schools moving toward by-area elections for trustees

Original article appeared in The Modesto Bee.

by nan austin

Modesto City Schools trustees moved forward with seeking by-area elections, voting unanimously to seek a change in the Modesto city charter to allow the board to divide its large high school district into seven trustee areas.
“The legal threat is real. Courts have favored consistently for those who support elections by district,” parent Filipe Alvarez said through an interpreter before Monday’s vote.
The first step is to amend the charter, which was expected to happen at the City Council’s meeting Tuesday. The charter as written requires the district to have at-large elections; board members can live anywhere in the district’s far-ranging high school district. The plan is to divide the area into seven districts, with each board member living in and being elected by residents of a district.
“This is a chance for Modesto City Schools and the city of Modesto tomorrow to begin to solve our problem of being sued for violation of the California Voting Rights Act. We know that it’s probably going to be approved tomorrow, so we are well on our way toward getting it resolved,” board Vice President Steve Grenbeaux said Monday.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the group most active in this legal area, said Tuesday that it is not pursuing any action against Modesto City Schools and no civil case was listed in the Stanislaus Superior Court index.
The Lawyers’ Committee is the group that won a $3 million settlement against Modesto in 2007, the first and one of the largest cases of this kind.
The change makes it easier for neighborhood leaders to be elected and is generally seen as benefiting minority candidates, who often lack the political backing to campaign across large areas. A 2013 letter from the Latino Community Roundtable noting the six-figure costs incurred by agencies that did not change spurred districts throughout Stanislaus County to switch.
“We do want to help you with the process,” Latino Community Roundtable President Maggie Mejia told the board Monday.
Modesto City Schools is the largest district in the county and includes many of the areas with the highest concentrations of Latino voters.
District lawyer Roman Munoz introduced the resolution, explaining the district has “a very unique governance situation,” which makes changing its school board elections more complicated. Besides being a chartered district, Modesto City Schools is two districts with a common administration.
Its elementary district serves central, west and south areas within Modesto. Its high school district encompasses those areas plus six other elementary school districts of varying sizes in north Modesto and rural areas outside the city.
There has been no discussion of how the districts might be split, but they will need to be of about the same population. The district trustees would vote on an elementary district decision as well, even those trustees that do not represent that area.
After the charter is changed to allow the divisions, voters would need to approve the split, likely in November, speakers said.