TURLOCK — Grudgingly, school board members agreed Tuesday night to move to electing trustees from geographic districts, starting in 2013.
The seven members of the Turlock Unified School District board currently are chosen in at-large elections. Board members said they see the value in making the change to district elections, but they're not happy to be pushed into doing it. "There is a law group that has created a cottage industry out of suing districts," Superintendent Sonny DaMarto said.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area argues that districts improve the odds for minority and first-time candidates. The California Voting Rights Act gives the group a window to push city councils and school districts for those changes.
A 2004 lawsuit by the group on behalf of three Latino residents led Modesto to adopt district elections for City Council seats. The Ceres Unified School District made a similar change after the group threatened to sue there.
"You could fight it all you want and if you win, you still could have to pay their attorney's fees," trustee Loren Holt said. "(By adopting this resolution) we limit our exposure in this significantly."
The board voted 6-0 to adopt the resolution. It's a member short, after the resignation of trustee Lori Crivelli; a new member is set to be appointed next month.
The district will wait until after this year's census data is compiled to put a demographer to work on drawing districts; DaMarto anticipates that will happen in April 2011. Three trustees will be selected by district in 2013, and the remaining four seats would go to districts in 2015.
DaMarto gave a preliminary estimate of $15,000 for the move and listed some advantages of the change.
"We feel that it gives the community a chance for representation throughout the district," DaMarto said. "It's more efficient and effective."
DaMarto said because campaigns for elections by geographic area are less expensive than those that must reach the entire school district, more people might run for the board.
"I see this as us just having to comply with the (state Voting) Rights Act," board President Frank Lima said. "I see this as an unfunded mandate."
Board member John Sims put it more strongly. "This amounts to a shakedown of the school district," he said.
"Some very good things can happen," he added, including a broader variety of people running for the board, and board members from the far reaches of the district, which stretches to Keyes on the north and into Merced County to the south.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.