Hughson, Empire school districts close to moving to geographic elections

naustin@modbee.comJuly 18, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

The Hughson Unified and Empire Union school districts are one meeting closer to electing school board members by geographic area, a move meant to guarantee representation for minority communities.

In separate meetings Tuesday, both received unanimous votes by the Stanislaus County Committee on School District Organization, making a total of four districts approved within a year.

"We just hit the tip of the iceberg," committee member Judi Luna said after the meeting. The Stanislaus County Office of Education committee also rules on school district mergers and other organizational changes.

Waiting in the wings are other districts that have just begun the process, said Latino Roundtable President Maggie Mejia.

Mejia's group started the process with letters warning of potentially costly legal action under the California Voting Rights Act if districts did not switch.

The boards of Riverbank Unified, Stanislaus Union, Newman-Crows Landing, Salida Union and Waterford also approved splitting their districts. "I think we've come a long way since we sent the letters in February," Mejia said at the Hughson meeting.

Hughson Unified split the district into five areas, with one seat to cover a rural area stretching from Hickman to La Grange and one seat serving roughly a half-mile square in central Hughson. The population is about the same in all five areas, which cover Hughson and all the elementary districts feeding into Hughson High, said Superintendent Brian Beck.

"From our standpoint, we get compliant, give people opportunity (for representation) and potentially save money for the district, so it's a win-win-win," Beck told the committee.

Before the vote, committee member Marsha Waggoner said the splits could cause problems in attracting enough interested residents to fill the board. "It is a concern because a lot of people don't get involved until there's a problem that affects themselves," she said. "Hughson is a community, so hopefully you will draw people in."

Hughson Unified will have time to lay out contingency plans for empty seats, Beck said. A companion board resolution changed the election cycle to even years, lengthening the terms of all sitting trustees by a year. Trustees will run by area starting in 2014.

Empire Union's election will proceed as scheduled, with three at-large seats to be decided in November. In 2015, the first by-area trustees will be elected. Five partitions split the district's 25-square-mile territory.

Dave Garcia, beginning his first year as Empire superintendent, and Empire trustees who came to the meeting said the process went smoothly. The district consulted its bargaining units as well as site councils of its four elementary and one middle school in creating the maps and making the switch.

"We had a lot of questions, a lot of concerns at the beginning," said Board President Loretta Stein.

Board Clerk Carole Dovichi said existing board members live in all the trustee areas. "We're pretty well spread," she said.

District lawyer Nevin Trehan said the point was to avoid costly lawsuits that no agency has won. The city of Modesto agreed to pay a $3 million settlement over by-area elections in 2007. "The board just wanted to get out in front of any potential litigation," Trehan said.

Patterson Unified and Turlock Unified switches to by-area elections were approved in 2012. Both are electing by-area trustees in November. Ceres Unified switched soon after the Modesto lawsuit settled, becoming the first Stanislaus County district to hold by-area elections.

Modesto City Schools has yet to take action. Riverbank Unified and Keyes Union districts are starting the process. Keyes Superintendent Cynthia Schaefer said her board is planning for elections by area in 2015.

Officially, Tuesday's vote was to recommend the state Board of Education grant a waiver to the district allowing it to bypass having voters approve the election change, in essence an election about electing. In 2012 the state board granted waivers to 53 districts — including Turlock Unified and Escalon Unified. In 2011, only six districts sought such waivers.

State board approvals of such waivers have become routine, making Tuesday's decisions the last practical hurdle for districts, said Chet Quaide, attorney for the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin, www.modbee.com/education.

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