In a last-minute effort to avoid being sued, six Stanislaus County school districts have delayed their 2013 school board elections to November 2014.
The legal threat is real. The courts have consistently sided with by-district election supporters who argue that the 2002 California Voting Rights Act mandates by-district elections as a way to ensure minority rights and representation. The city of Modesto was the expensive test case on this issue and its legal bills topped $3 million before losing. Modesto now elects its council members by district.
The big argument for by-district elections is that it assures all neighborhoods and communities are represented, and that is a valid argument. Too often, the majority of school board members or council members come from the same few areas and backgrounds, leaving some areas often those with a high percentage of minority voters without a voice.
That pattern holds true for the Modesto City Schools board, for instance. As education writer Nan Austin pointed out in this past Sunday's Bee, four of the seven board members live in or around the college neighborhood, but none is from the sections of south and west Modesto with the largest elementary schools. Sylvan and Salida, two of the largest K-12 feeder districts, do not have representation on the board, which oversees the Modesto High School District campuses that their students attend.
Our concern with the six districts that rushed into committing to change to district elections is that they have also moved their elections to even years, when they'll be on the same ballot with all the congressional and state Assembly races, many state races, and either gubernatorial or presidential races.
The decision is a done deal for those six, but we urge other districts to consider whether being part of a crowded ballot is a good idea or whether it makes sense to stay with odd-year ballots. The arguments for keeping local contests separate include:
While turnout is higher for presidential elections, numerous citizens only vote in the high- interest races and on state propositions. Often, hundreds of people do not vote on the lesser known races, either because they don't know or care about them.
A 2011 state law change mandates that all initiatives and referendums will be on general election ballots (November of even years), which will mean even more state proposition opponents and proponents competing for voters' attention those years.
Moving the 2013 elections to 2014 has the effective of giving all current trustees five-year terms instead of four-year terms. We dare say some trustees are ready to retire and some probably need to be retired.
Citizens are going to be confused by the fact that most school board seats are filled in odd-numbered years in Stanislaus County and others in even years. Under the current situation, voters in Salida and northwest Modesto will be choosing their elementary school district trustees for the Salida and Stanislaus Union boards, respectively in even years and voting for their Modesto High School district representatives in odd years.
Even-year elections are highly partisan because they feature the partisan races for president, governor, congress and state legislative seats. Some of this partisanship likely will slop over into school board races, which are and should be nonpartisan.
Some school districts cited a potential savings by being in the even-year ballots, but Stanislaus County elections chief Lee Lundrigan says there is no guarantee of savings. The total election cost, which is divided among the government agencies with items on the ballot, is based on the length of the ballot. A long ballot might require two ballot cards; that will be expensive.
Ceres switched to a mix of district and at-large elections for school board members several years ago but kept their elections in odd-numbered years. Turlock and Patterson also acted earlier rather than later and have maps drawn for their trustees to be elected starting this year.
We like the thoughtful approach being taken by Empire, which will look at demographics and whether voter participation likely will be higher in odd or even years.
In the meantime, for those six districts that will be going to district elections in 2014, we urge citizens to get involved in the process of drawing the district maps.
These districts have moved their 2013 school board elections to November 2014:
Newman-Crows Landing Unified