Education

South Modesto gets school board seat this November

Modesto City Schools reverses vote, gives Latino area 2017 seat

After community outrage greeted a later election for majority Latino neighborhoods in newly drawn trustee area 7, the Modesto City Schools Board voted unanimously May 11 to have that area's election happen this year. The four seats to be elected i
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After community outrage greeted a later election for majority Latino neighborhoods in newly drawn trustee area 7, the Modesto City Schools Board voted unanimously May 11 to have that area's election happen this year. The four seats to be elected i

The heavily Latino area of south Modesto will get a school board representative in November after all.

On Thursday, the Modesto City Schools board unanimously reversed its decision on election timing for newly created trustee areas after community groups protested and a longtime trustee accused the board of implicit bias.

“This whole process from start to finish has been a lesson in democracy at the local neighborhood,” trustee Steve Grenbeaux said after the meeting. Grenbeaux spoke against the original decision, made after trustees Amy Neumann and John Walker voiced concerns that the disadvantaged neighborhood could produce a viable candidate in only a few months. “I think that argument is specious. It’s arrogant. It’s elitist, and it smacks of implicit bias,” Grenbeaux said at an earlier meeting.

The split into seven trustee areas was made to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and raise representation for minority communities. Yet the two most heavily minority areas, covering south (Area 7) and west (Area 6) Modesto, would have waited until at least 2019 for their chance at a seat under the original vote on April 17.

These communities are strong communities. They have people who will represent them, who will fight for them. They will not give up.

Evelyn Mejia

At Thursday’s meeting, Neumann said, “I would have loved to have had this input before we voted. I want our first time out with area elections to be successful. I want community buy-in.”

But it was an emotional statement from trustee Cindy Marks, who also voted for the original timing, that roused applause. “I just apologize to you for making the the decision I did, and making it so that you and all of us had to be here again tonight to revisit this,” she said, thanking those who spoke and saying she recognized many were hurt by that vote.

“I did not communicate well with the community and our district did not communicate well with the community. That’s something we need to grow with,” Marks said.

Several speakers offered to help the district better connect with its Spanish-speaking families and low-income neighborhoods, offering a silver lining to the weeks of controversy raised by Area 7’s delay.

“We need make sure everyone is aware of what is happening,” said Rebecca Harrington, president of the Latino Community Roundtable. Harrington said she had created a list of organization leaders and Latino media outlets happy to work with the district to spread the word. “I’m not just here to make a demand. I’m also offering a solution for the future.”

I’m not just here to make a demand. I’m also offering a solution for the future.

Rebecca Harrington

The board heard nearly an hour of speakers, each with a three-minute limit.

“We do lack representation,” said Evelyn Mejia, a Modesto Junior College student who grew up in south Modesto. “You all, deep in your heart, know this is something that should be taken into action,” she said. “I just want you all to know that south Modesto, west Modesto – these communities are strong communities. They have people who will represent them, who will fight for them. They will not give up.”

Laying out the map lines had to go through a lengthy process and hit a May 2 Stanislaus County deadline to allow the registrar of voters to draw the new voting districts in time to print the November ballots. Which areas voted first, however, could still change, attorney Roman Muñoz advised the district.

Under the timing voted for Thursday, seats for Areas 1 (Salida), 3 (Sylvan-Riverbank), 5 (Empire) and 7 (south Modesto) will be decided Nov. 6. Areas 2, 4, and 6 will wait for the next election. See the map at www.mcs4kids.com.

Seats for Areas 1 (Salida), 3 (Sylvan-Riverbank), 5 (Empire) and 7 (south Modesto) will be decided Nov. 6. Areas 2, 4, and 6 will wait for the next election. See the map at www.mcs4kids.com.

The seats originally chosen for 2017 lined up with the end of terms for four sitting board members living in those areas. The new timing will leave board President Sue Zwahlen, who lives in Area 2, without a seat to run for as her term expires this year.

“I’m out,” Zwahlen said after the meeting, adding she would have liked to have run again. Nevertheless, Zwahlen voted consistently against the voting cycle that would have aligned with her re-election.

The three trustees whose terms last through 2019 – Neumann, Grenbeaux and Walker – will continue in at-large seats until the end of their terms in 2019, or 2020 if the board shifts to even-year elections by then.

The shift to by-area elections follows a 2013 letter from the Latino Community Roundtable warning Stanislaus County school districts of the high cost of voting rights lawsuits, which school districts to date have always lost. The city of Modesto became the state’s cautionary tale in 2007, losing the first such lawsuit after a three-year battle that ended with a $3 million settlement and a switch to by-area city council seats.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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