TURLOCK -- Anticipating a possible voting rights lawsuit down the road, school board members will consider electing trustees by geographic districts.
The school board might join a growing list of San Joaquin Valley elected bodies moving to district elections to meet the terms of a 2002 state voting law. Turlock trustees tonight will hear a recommendation from Superintendent Sonny DaMarto that the district switch from citywide elections to choosing trustees from designated areas, starting with the November 2013 election.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area wants school boards and city councils to adopt district elections because, it argues, districts improve the odds for minority and first-time candidates. The California Voting Rights Act gives the group a window to push for those changes.
A 2004 lawsuit from the Lawyers Committee led Modesto to adopt district elections for City Council seats. The Ceres Unified School District made a similar change after the same group threatened to sue there.
"This is just strictly because of the ... lawsuit," Turlock Trustee Bob Weaver said Monday. "If you get that letter, you're liable for attorney's fees that can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars very quickly."
Robert Rubin, the San Francisco attorney who brought the lawsuit against Modesto on behalf of Latino residents, could not be reached. He said in 2008 that his group was targeting other school districts in the San Joaquin Valley, but he would not say where they were.
Weaver, who won a seat on the Turlock board in November, said he doesn't believe the school board neglects any minority or geographic area.
The issue surfaced in last year's campaign when then-trustee Tami Muniz pointed out that she was the only candidate on the ballot from Turlock's west side, a lower-income area with older schools. Muniz, like the other two incumbents on the ballot, lost her bid for re-election.
"If we fail the west side, we've failed the district," Weaver said.
Electing by district doesn't guarantee a stronger voice for minorities.
In its first district election in November, voters in Modesto selected Dave Geer, a white Republican, over Democrat Al Nava in District 2, a heavily Democratic and Latino district. Ceres' school board, which before district elections had three Latino members, is down to two.
Latinos won office in some local communities without districts in November, including Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño and Modesto City Schools Trustee Ruben Villalobos.
Weaver said it isn't clear what the change would cost the district.
"That's one of the things I think we'll talk about (Tuesday)," he said.
Also, the board will meet in closed session to discuss the lawsuit it is facing over accepting more than $2 million in city redevelopment money to refurbish the track and field at Turlock High School.
The Turlock Unified School District Board
of Trustees will meet at 6 p.m. in the
conference room, No. 114, at the district office, 1574 E. Canal Drive.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.