Modesto City Schools trustees discuss need to switch from at-large elections to comply with Voting Rights Act

naustin@modbee.comSeptember 10, 2013 

— The Modesto City Schools district will need to move to by-area elections to protect itself from costly legal filings, a consultant and the district’s lawyer told the board. The report did not include any action at Monday’s meeting.

The California Voting Rights Act calls for area elections whenever voting skews down ethnic lines, said consultant Paul Mitchell. The purpose is to bring people closer to the election process, but it also can split communities and give an advantage to specific groups, said Mitchell, who works with Redistricting Partners.

Critics fear there won’t be enough high-quality candidates from small areas, or the area-elected trustees will focus too narrowly on their own areas, but Mitchell said he has not seen significant change in board performance. More minority candidates tend to run because it is less expensive to run in smaller areas, he added.

“It can work,” said Maggie Mejia, head of the Latino Community Roundtable, citing numbers of Latino candidates appearing in local elections. She said her group sent a letter to school districts in February “to open everyone’s eyes” to the danger of high legal costs.

Modesto City’s sprawling high school district would have to be divided into areas of equal population, large in rural areas and compact within city limits. Mitchell said his group works to keep incumbents in separate areas, seeing that as preserving the voters’ choices.

“The tone of redistricting has gotten very shrill in the past six months,” he said. “There have been a lot of lawsuits popping up.”

The district’s risk of a high-cost legal battle has increased significantly in the past year, Mitchell concluded. At least 85 districts have begun the process to switch to area elections in the past year, he said.

Modesto City Schools, as an entity under the city charter, has more hoops to jump through than a regular district and will need to hold an election asking voters to approve the change, said attorney Roman Munoz.

“Who profits from these lawsuits?” board President Nancy Cline asked. Attorneys, most concentrated in five statewide law firms, are making the high fees, Mitchell answered.

Board member Amy Neumann said she advocated for area elections years ago but said she wanted a public process with community input.

In other business, board members heard that the district will get $5.9 million for training and materials for Common Core, more than they expected to spend this year.

In a wrap-up of employee bargaining agreements:

• Teachers get back the last of the furlough days this year and full salaries at pre-recession highs. Stipends and hourly pay for extra work have not gone back up. They also get 1 percent of their salary as a one-time bonus. The average teacher salary in 2007-08, the level this contract returns to, was $80,360.

• Support staff also returned to pre-recession salary schedules and will get a 1 percent one-time payment.

• Managers, including district office administrators and principals, got a 4 percent hike in salary and the 1 percent payment.

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

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