Modesto City Schools will weigh shift to by-area elections

Modesto City Schools administration building at 426 Locust St.
Modesto City Schools administration building at 426 Locust St. The Modesto Bee

Modesto City Schools on Monday will consider switching to by-area elections, becoming the largest and among the last districts in Stanislaus County to explore making the change.

The Modesto City Council will look at revising the city charter to allow the shift at its meeting Tuesday. The city already has so-called district elections, as part of a $3 million settlement reached in 2007 in response to the first such lawsuit, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Changing the charter needs to be the first step, Superintendent Pam Able said. The school board will vote on whether to move ahead at its meeting, after which the panel will take up final votes on the district’s community-driven spending priorities plan and its $290 million budget for 2015-16.

Modesto City Schools now has at-large elections, where all seven board seats are open to anyone in its sprawling high school district. The change would split its territory into seven areas, roughly equal in population, with one board member elected from and by voters in each area.

The breakup could split Modesto seven ways to give a representative to each of the seven elementary districts that feed into its high schools: Empire, Hart Ransom, Paradise, Salida, Shiloh, Stanislaus Union and Sylvan. It could keep Modesto regions together and give large swaths of rural areas to a couple of trustees.

Board members also have the option of splitting the district in a way that would keep each of their own homes in a trustee area. That appears unlikely with the Modesto City Board, where five of the seven live in roughly central Modesto and two live in north Modesto.

None live west of Highway 99 or south of Paradise Road, where the largest numbers of Modesto City Schools children live. Those are also the areas most heavily populated by Latinos, whose voting rights are meant to be upheld by the switch.

The California Voting Rights Act falls squarely on the side of representation for minority communities, said Latino Community Roundtable President Maggie Mejia after her group sent a letter to Stanislaus County school districts in 2013.

The letter warned of expensive consequences for at-large boards. Every lawsuit had prevailed, with filing expenses alone costing targeted school districts $300,000, said Rosalinda Vierra with the Roundtable. “If we don’t give you the nudge, they’ll come in and force you to change,” she told Riverbank trustees that year at the meeting where they voted to split.

Stanislaus County has 24 school district boards, the majority of which have split into district elections or are in the process of splitting. Ceres Unified was the first school district to divide. Turlock Unified followed in 2012. Both of those districts have about 14,000 students.

The latest to file for county clearance to divide into five trustee areas was Chatom Union School District, with about 600 students and – at its last contested election in 2009 – 1,748 voters.

The Modesto district, by contrast, included 112,916 voters at its last election in 2013.

In other business, the board will consider:

▪ Setting aside $11.7 million from its general fund in 2015-16 to replace cafeterias and classrooms at Burbank Elementary, built in 1943, and Wilson Elementary, built in 1929.

▪ Passing its 2015-16 budget, which anticipates $290 million in general fund revenue, $47 million more than this school year. Expenses already agreed to will grow as well, expected to reach $244 million. The surplus is slated to be largely taken by facility maintenance and special education needs.

▪ Raising its head of human resources from associate superintendent, human resources to “deputy superintendent, chief human resources official,” with an undisclosed change in salary. The item was tabled earlier this month, at that time calling for pay of $170,858, a 7.3 percent hike from the associate position. This time the agenda item only notes he will be paid “at the agreed to contracted salary,” and does not provide the contract.

▪ Approve a list of PG-13 films as supplementary materials that could be shown in eighth-grade classrooms, including “Bully,” “The Giver,” and “The Outsiders.” One R-rated film, “Motorcycle Diaries,” is recommended to be allowed for a junior year History of the Americas course.

The Modesto City Schools Board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday in the district staff development center, 425 Locust St., Modesto. See the agenda here. Watch a live stream of the meeting here.