Legal case for community activism on school boards stands as a paper win

Original article can be found in The Modesto Bee.

By Nan Austin

With the expected passage of Measure F, Modesto City Schools will gain the option of having by-area elections. Such splits are meant to increase community involvement, but none of this works if nobody steps up to run.

Across Stanislaus County, school boards have made the costly and complicated switch to align with the California Voting Rights Act and avoid the risk of a lawsuit. Even the filing of a lawsuit, lawyers advised, could cost the districts dearly and winning the case was not a possibility.

In theory, breaking large territories and densely populated areas into bite-size pieces should make it easier for neighborhoods to elect their own, and for folks outside the standard power networks to successfully campaign.

But Stanislaus County, with its 120 trustees on 25 elected school boards, puts theory to the test. Eight of the 51 school board seats up for election this year had no one sign up to run.

The utter lack of interest was more pronounced in by-area seats. No one filed for five of 28 by-area seats, compared with three empty slots among 23 at-large seats. Those seats will be filled by appointment by the existing board.

Stanislaus Union School District Area 3 has attracted no candidates in any election. It sat empty in the 2014 election cycle after the north Modesto district’s split in 2013-14. The seat was filled by appointment, but the appointee moved this year and it was set again for election in November.

No one filed. No one living in the area stepped up to be appointed, and it will remain vacant until the 2016 election cycle, according to an agenda report. The board will be asked at their Thursday meeting to consider redrawing the election boundaries, estimated to cost $20,000.

This is where the Voting Rights Act has failed. Because the sitting board now appoints and I’m not sure that’s better representation. Frank Lima, Turlock Unified board president

“This is where the Voting Rights Act has failed. Because the sitting board now appoints and I’m not sure that’s better representation,” said Turlock Unified board President Frank Lima last month in addressing Turlock’s new by-area seat when it had no filers for the November ballot.

“It sure puts a lot of power in the hands of the board,” he added.

Turlock Unified found itself in a pickle when no one in the area of its upcoming by-area vacancy would even apply to be appointed. Just as the board had called an emergency meeting Sept. 18 to extend its time to find someone, two applicants from its southern Area 7 stepped forward. It also had two applications for its Area 2 seat, vacant because the elected trustee moved.

Turlock is the second-largest district in the county, with seven trustees and about 14,000 students. In March, Chatom Union School District, with 660 students, finalized its split for by-area elections.

As of its last contested election in 2009, the Chatom district had 1,748 voters, which on average gives its five areas about 350 voters each. Fewer than 1 in 3 of those eligible voted in that 2009 contest, however, which means 57 votes would win a two-way contest.

There will not be any contest in Chatom, however. Two incumbents were the only filers for two seats up for election this year. That was the case for 68 percent of all Stanislaus County trustee seats up for grabs in November. One seat. One filer. Done deal.

Only 1 in 4, 25 percent, of voters cast ballots in the last Modesto City Schools election.

Out of 51 posts up for election, only eight at-large seats and four by-area seats will give voters a say in November.

Lack of interest and participation in school board elections is nothing new. In San Joaquin County, with mostly at-large districts, 41 percent of the school board seats up for election this year were held by appointed trustees.

But where there are so many small districts, as in Stanislaus County, splitting can be an even greater challenge.

Taken to the extreme, if 89-student Knights Ferry Elementary School District split into areas for its five-member board, it would have about 70 voters in each area. In its last election in 2013, 46 percent of Knights Ferry voters did their civic duty, which if you do the math means it would take 17 voters – one large family and its neighbors – to elect a trustee in a two-way contest. In a three-way run, they would not need the neighbors.

The issue of representation gets another question mark with the Stanislaus County penchant for in-district charter schools. In the Keyes Union School District, where two out of three seats up for election had no filers, fully one-third of its students come from outside its borders to attend its Keyes to Learning Charter. In Shiloh Elementary District, only 50 of its students live within its territory. The bulk of its student body – 90 children – lives elsewhere and attends Shiloh Charter School.

The switch to by-area elections, intended to improve representation for minority voters, was recommended to most Stanislaus County districts in a 2013 letter from the Latino Community Roundtable. Advocates said they hoped to spare schools here the expensive lesson suffered by others.

The city of Modesto was the first major case to test that interpretation of the California Voting Rights Act. The city paid a $3 million settlement in 2007 to close a lawsuit by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, the courts have consistently sided with requiring by-area elections.

Before the 2013 letter, only the county Board of Education, Oakdale Unified and Ceres Unified had area elections.

In November, Empire Union, Keyes Union, Oakdale Unified, Patterson Unified, Riverbank Unified, Stanislaus Union, Sylvan Union and Turlock Unified are selecting trustees by area – whether or not they had an election.

Modesto City Schools, the largest district in the region, could be seen as the most vulnerable to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit. Of its current board, one trustee lives in north Modesto and the remainder are clustered in central Modesto. None live in the heavily Latino western or southern neighborhoods where the majority of the district’s younger students live.

But having by-area elections for this dual-purpose district is complicated.

More the two-thirds, 68 percent, of Modesto City Elementary School District students are Latino, compared with a little more than half, 52 percent, of the sprawling Modesto City High School District.

Modesto City Elementary School District serves 15,000 students in central, south and western Modesto, while Modesto City High School District includes the Modesto elementary district plus seven more. Some 15,000 teens from Empire, Paradise, Hart-Ransom, Stanislaus Union, Sylvan, Shiloh and Salida elementary school districts attend Modesto high schools.

Modesto City Schools is two districts with a common administration, one of the few left in California. It is the larger high school area that would be subdivided into seven areas in a district split, which could potentially give a majority vote to rural areas with little Latino representation.

That perceived lack of voice matters when the board is prioritizing skills and experience sought in hiring teachers, discussing how discipline and dress codes are crafted, or choosing between investing in more computers for high schools or more after-school program slots in gang neighborhoods.

The split could potentially be drawn with large chunks of rural territory having tiny tails dipping into the elementary urban core. That was Turlock’s choice, with all but one of its areas fanning out to the west from Turlock proper.

Another possibility would carve areas so each includes a current trustee residence, which advocates in other districts have interpreted as serving demonstrated voter preference.

However future splits go, the overall picture points to the next logical step for Latino and other community advocates, getting more candidates ready to run.