Modesto City Schools is facing objections over how it divided its district boundaries into seven trustee areas as it moves away from electing trustees by districtwide vote.
Advocates for Justice — a Modesto group that mentors black and at-risk youth — says the map the school board approved in April favors sitting trustees and does not do enough to elect representatives from south and west Modesto, home to many minority and low-income families. The decision to split into seven trustee areas was made to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and increase representation for minority communities.
But Roman Muñoz — the school district’s attorney — said Modesto City Schools followed state and federal law and established practices in devising the map, which puts roughly the same number of residents in the seven areas. And the trustees held four public forums to gather community input. National Demographics Corp. prepared the map. It also has created maps for the cities of Modesto and Turlock as they moved from at-large to district elections.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s fair and everything was based on the law and the guidelines we were expected to follow,” Modesto City Schools board President Sue Zwahlen said.
But Advocates for Justice and several community members took their case last week to the Modesto City Council.
The city’s charter vests the control of the school system with the school board. It also spells out how trustees are elected. Modesto City Schools needed the city’s approval before district voters last year approved amending the charter to allow for trustee elections by area. But Muñoz said the city does not have jurisdiction over the school district beyond that.
“Modesto City Schools is under your umbrella,” interim Modesto-Stanislaus NAACP Branch President Gladys Williams told council members. She and others called for the city to conduct an investigation of the school district.
“What we are talking about is equity, a level playing field,” said Jacque Wilson, an attorney and co-founder of Advocates for Justice. He said the residents of west and south Modesto “deserve a voice. They have effectively been left out. We are speaking for all the people who live in those communities.”
None of the trustees now on the school board lives in those communities.
Wilson said in an interview that he pressed Modesto City Schools to take up this matter up in May but was rebuffed. The school board did hold a special meeting May 11 and changed the timing of the area elections but did not address the map.
Council members voted 6-0 to have City Attorney Adam Lindgren look into what jurisdiction — if any — Modesto has in this matter and report back to them at their Tuesday meeting. Councilwoman Kristi Ah You was not at the meeting. Modesto City Schools officials are expected at the meeting.
Advocates for Justice wants Modesto City Schools to create another map.
That could be difficult. By law there must be a series of public hearings before redrawing the district boundaries, all requiring public notice.
The map the trustees approved has four trustee areas up for election in November and was submitted to the Stanislaus County election office May 2. County Registrar of Voters Lee Lundrigan said there is not be enough time for her office to redraw voting precincts and the other work necessary to process a new map ahead of the printing of the ballots for the election.
But Wilson said state law gives the school district until June 30 to submit another map to the election office.
The map approved in April puts Trustees John Walker and Chad Brown in their own areas even though they live within blocks of one another in east Modesto. The map puts school board President Zwahlen and Trustee Amy Neumann in the same area, and gives Trustee Steve Grenbeaux his own area, though the three live near one another in central Modesto.
Grenbeaux’s trustee area includes central Modesto, the airport neighborhood and west Modesto. Wilson said those are three distinct communities with their own interests. But Muñoz, the school district’s attorney, said the areas were drawn to keep communities together while balancing other factors, including creating areas with roughly the same number of residents.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316
TO VIEW THE MAPS
The trustees considered four maps before selecting map No. 3. To view the maps and other information, go to www.mcs4kids.com, and then click on the “District Elections Update” box.