Steven E. Gomes: Changes for many school district ballots

September 28, 2012 

On your sample ballot for the Nov. 6 general election, depending on the school district you live in, you may notice that not all of the candidates for school board are on your ballot.

This may be different from how you previously voted for school board members.

In the past, you may have been able to cast your ballot for more than one school board member, with the top vote-

getters winning the spots available on the board. In fact, there may be a school trustee candidate living across the street from you whose name may be absent from your ballot.

The reason for this change is that many district school boards in the county have opted to designate trustee areas within the district.

Historically, board of trustees had been elected through an at-large election system in which all registered voters living in the district's boundaries elect each governing board member.

In recent years, this system has been found to be in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. This act prohibits the use of an at-large election system if it can be shown that such an election system results in racially polarized voting.

Several districts in the valley have been charged with violating the law by nature of the at-large election process. Consequently, these districts have spent large amounts of dollars in attorney fees.

Several minority advocacy groups are threatening to sue any district that does not establish trustee areas that comply with the federal and state Voting Rights Act.

Their presumption is that at-large elections are likely to violate the minority voting rights.

Although it is possible that jurisdictions are not required to switch to trustee areas, school districts must base a decision to remain with at-large trustees on a detailed analysis, rather than historical practice.

In order to be exempt from liability and the potential loss of money to costly litigation, governing boards in the valley, including several in Merced County districts, took action to transition from at-large to trustee area elections.

Trustee areas must be ethnically and socioeconomically balanced, and candidates must reside in specific trustee areas in the district's boundaries. Only the voters who reside in the same trustee areas elect candidates.

School districts are required to review population changes every 10 years based on census data to determine if changes to trustee areas are needed.

Those that still use an at-large method of election -- a candidate can reside anywhere in the district and can be voted upon by all residents of the district -- may use demographic data to assess whether their elections comply with the law.

A violation can subject a district to the payment of attorney's fees and costs incurred by plaintiffs who sue the district.

Districts that wish to transition to a trustee area election method, which is immune from liability under the law, may want to do so this year utilizing the newest census data.

Every 10 years, the adopted trustee areas will require a review of population changes based on the census data to determine if trustee areas need to be adjusted to appropriately represent our constituents. Trustee areas that are adopted this year will not require adjustment until 2022.

In Merced County, about half of the school districts are using the trustee area voting system. Some of them opted to implement that structure to comply with the California Voting Rights Act.

Those school districts are Atwater, Gustine, Hilmar, Le Grand Elementary, Livingston, Los Banos, Merced City, Merced High, Planada, Weaver and MCOE.

After reviewing the demographic data, districts in the county that did not change to trustee area elections believed candidates were not at a disadvantage and were reluctant to change the district's voting system.

I encourage you to take the time to learn about possible changes to trustee areas in your community and about the school board candidates that could be on your school district's next board of education. These elected officials help to guide and govern the schools that teach children in your community.

Most importantly, make sure you get to the ballot box and cast your vote. Each one makes a difference.

Gomes is Merced County superintendent of schools.

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