Jeff Jardine

Can City Schools’ map help cure problem of dismal voter turnout in south Modesto?

Over the past 30 years, Modesto City Schools’ Board of Education was the most racially diverse of any elected panel in the county.

In the late-1990s, the board included Odessa Johnson, who served 16 years in all, some of it alongside trustees Connie Chin and Gary Lopez. It went onto include Ricardo Cordova and Ruben Villalobos, both of whom resigned when they became Stanislaus County Superior Court judges. Desiree Romo and Stacie Morales also served briefly.

All either were elected or appointed to at-large seats, meaning they didn’t represent a specific geographic area within the district. The voters did a solid job of balancing out the board racially without boundaries being part of the makeup.

But after a lawsuit forced the city of Modesto to go to district elections in 2009, the school board knew it must do the same or face that type of litigation at some point. Proponents, including the Latino Community Roundtable, wanted to increase the likelihood that a predominantly Latino area of the city would be represented by a Latino. (More on that momentarily.)

Their timing was good. Over the past couple of elections and through vacancy appointments, the board’s demographic morphed into seven white trustees, though one of them, John Walker, grew up in a mixed-race home.

After the measure passed in November, the district moved quickly to hire a consultant to determine district boundary options. By a 4-3 vote Monday, the board selected Map 3 among four options. The map includes District 7, which would cover much of the same predominately Latino area of southwest Modesto as Modesto City Council’s District 2.

Citizens living in the school District 7 would begin voting in 2019, assuming the map is approved at the county level. And therein begins the challenge: getting residents of the district to vote. If school officials can do so, the city would like to know the secret. They haven’t in the past.

The inability to get Latinos to vote is something that has perplexed Latino leaders for decades, and the city’s first round of district elections in 2009 didn’t reverse the trend. In a district of 34,000 residents – 9,000 of them registered voters – only 11.6 percent voted. Dave Geer, who wasn’t Latino, won the seat with just 596 votes. When Geer decided not to seek a second term in 2013, the turnout was only slightly better. Tony Madrigal claimed the seat with 804 out of the 1,465 votes cast in a 16.2 percent turnout.

Now, the school trustees will run by districts, too. Schools are great at attracting parental participation to events and programs that directly impact their children. They walk their kids to school, join the PTA, volunteer for fundraisers and other activities. But when it came to attending any of the four meetings where the public could participate in the mapping process, they where nowhere to be found.

Sessions at Modesto, Johansen, Beyer and Gregori high schools drew from one to four people each, even though the demographics consultant came to explain the various options. The meetings were publicized through a combination of postings on the district’s online site, robocalls, stories in The Bee and through the district’s campuses. Yet the groups most vocal about the need to have a more diverse board – including the Latino Community Roundtable and Advocates for Justice – didn’t rally people to attend and weigh in.

Board member Sue Zwahlen said she suspects that once the measure passed to create districts, residents moved on to other things.

“I was not discouraged at all,” she said. “The people I spoke with who looked over the demographics thought they looked good.”

The bigger concern, she said, will focus on who from the district will step forward to run.

“Now that we’ve divided it,” she said, “Will it draw candidates from within the district?”

Equally important, will the new district’s voters step forward to restore diversity on the board that once was commonplace?