STANISLAUS COUNTY -- Fear of six-figure legal fees spurred by a letter sent out by a Latino advocacy group pushed six Stanislaus County school districts toward by-area elections last week. Most will delay November's races a year to have time to draw the maps.
Proponents say area elections promote racial and geographic diversity on school boards, city councils and other groups, and lower the costs of campaigning. Opponents worry that too many tiny splits could make fielding a board harder and say micro-local board divisions can work against the greater good.
In Stanislaus County, Ceres Unified is the only school district to have held by-area elections. Ceres drew its maps after it watched the Modesto City Council pay a $3 million settlement late in 2007 after fighting the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
That same group spurred Merced County school districts to switch beginning in 2008. In 2012, the boards of 53 districts including Turlock Unified and Escalon Unified out of about 960 statewide took a procedural step to the California State Board of Education to proceed with trustee area splits. In 2011, only six districts did so.
Lawyers' Committee attorney Robert Rubin told Education Week last month he's sent letters to some 60 districts, warning of potential lawsuits.
Every lawsuit to date has prevailed, with filing expenses alone costing targeted school districts $300,000, said Latino Community Roundtable legislation Chairwoman Rosalinda Vierra.
Modesto was the first such lawsuit, "ground zero" in the by-area voting explosion, said David Soldani, a partner in Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo of Fresno. Soldani is advising several of the local districts now moving to change their elections. "These can be very expensive cases to defend," he said.
Money concerns cited in vote
Valley districts with high numbers of minority students, such as Riverbank, are on the radar, Vierra told trustees at a special meeting Saturday. "If we don't give you the nudge, they'll come in and force you to change," she said.
"Seems to me we're being forced to play our hand on this. It's all about money," said Riverbank Trustee Steve Walker before joining Trustee John Mitchell in voting against the move.
Still, the resolution passed 3-2. Voting with the majority was board member Elizabeth Meza, who said the district could not afford an expensive lawsuit. Besides, Meza said, "I like the idea of more representation. There are clusters of board members living in certain areas."
Riverbank was the seventh district to take up the matter after Vierra's group mailed letters Feb. 12 to dozens of Stanislaus County elected boards, including all but the smallest school districts. Only Denair Unified has bucked the trend, voting 4-1 Thursday night against moving toward area elections.
The region's largest school district, 28,000-student Modesto City Schools, will take the matter up in closed session Monday as potential litigation, Superintendent Pam Able said. Four of Modesto's board members live in or near the college neighborhood, and one each in north, east and western parts of the city. None reside in the large southwest quadrant of the district, where the majority of their elementary students live.
The Latino Roundtable's letter calls traditional at-large elections, without term limits or campaign spending limits, "nothing short of an incumbent protection-voting scheme," in violation of state and federal voting rights acts.
The Latino advocacy group's goal, Vierra stressed, is not greater ethnic balance, but geographic. "In elections, you target the precincts with the highest voter turnout," she said, explaining that district elections ensure neighborhoods with lower turnout still have a seat at the table.
"It's giving those without a voice a voice, making sure everyone has a chance to vote," Vierra said. She noted smaller areas make it easier to run for office.
School board elections often go uncontested, and three boards in the county have current vacancies.
"The idea is, if we divide a school district into communities, that it would stimulate interest in those communities," said Larry Giventer, a political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus.
"One vote, maybe, is better than no vote. From the community's point of view, that's an advantage. The disadvantage is: That's all they get. They can be outvoted by other areas on the school board," Giventer said. At-large boards tend to focus more on the district as a whole.
Latino Roundtable President Maggie Mejia said her group decided to push the issue now because they wanted to save schools here from high legal fees. "We first talked about it when the city of Modesto fought district elections and they still lost. Three million dollars none of that money stayed in Stanislaus County. It all went to the lawyers. The three plaintiffs didn't get a dime," Mejia said.
Does switch make difference?
Results of the switch locally are mixed.
In the Modesto City Council's first district election in 2009, Dave Geer, a non-Latino white, beat Al Nava, a Latino, in a west side district seemingly drawn for minority representation.
Ceres Unified, where students are 70 percent Latino, had one trustee with a Latino surname before the switch. Now it has two.
Patterson Unified saw the writing on the wall and decided to go by-area last fall, said Superintendent Phil Alfano. The Patterson board determined area boundaries last month.
"Even if you could prove that you don't have racially polarized voting, you could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees," he said. "My understanding is there are legal groups where this is their bread and butter right now."
Empire Union also has started the switch. Riverbank was the sixth school district to vote for the change last week, following Hughson Unified, Newman-Crows Landing Unified, Salida Union, Stanislaus Union and Waterford.
"The reason for this move to trustee areas is to avoid the legal fees related to the possible lawsuit threatened in the demand letter," Newman-Crows Landing Superintendent Ed Felt said.
Area elections costly, too
Changing to area elections, however, takes money.
In Turlock Unified, which will hold its first by-area elections this year, costs to change have hit $79,000 and likely will climb higher, Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said.
Felt said his district expects to pool with other Stanislaus districts for demographic expertise and legal help, estimating the switch will cost Newman-Crows Landing about $25,000.
At least three districts, including Modesto on Monday night, are getting legal advice before proceeding.
Wednesday, the Keyes Union board will consider the matter in closed session, said Superintendent Cynthia Schaefer.
The Oakdale Joint Unified district, which now has two board members from its tiny feeder districts and three from outside them, will talk it over at an April meeting, Superintendent Marc Malone said.
Ripon Unified, in San Joaquin County, plans to put the choice to voters in November, said board member Kit Oase. Ripon's five seats have long been chosen from trustee areas, he said. But unlike the pure by-area system, the whole district votes in the races for area seats.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin, www.modbee.com/education.