To diversify boards, Merced County schools move to district voting

Under pressure from a Bay Area civil rights group, the two largest school districts in Merced County are ushering in school board election reform.

Both are hiring consultants or attorneys to avoid even higher costs if the rights group files a lawsuit about Latino representation in local school board elections.

Merced City School District and the Merced Union High School District are in different stages of a process to elect school board members based on demographic districts, as opposed to the at-large election process by which current representatives earned their seats.

Last week, the City School District voted to approve a contract with the Merced County Association of Governments to produce maps of the new trustee areas.

On Wednesday, the high school district is meeting to approve the reform, plus hire a law firm to guide it through the transition process.

"In closed session, we are discussing that tomorrow night, and there will be a decision made in open session," Superintendent Scott Scambray said.

The need for change became apparent when the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area sent a letter to the two districts' superintendents last year.

The letter alleged that racially polarized voting within each of the districts diluted the ability of Latino residents to elect representatives to the school boards, a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The act reads: "An at-large method of election may not be imposed or implied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or abridgement of the rights and privileges of members of a protected class."

The Lawyers' Committee said their research shows that no Latino members have been elected to the Merced City School Board, despite the fact that 55 percent of students are Latino.

"This is a civil rights issue because it deals with one of our most fundamental civil rights, and that is a right to vote," said Charles D. Forster Jr., an attorney and Thurgood Marshall Fellow with the committee. "Minority voters in at-large elections are having their voices diluted."

Forster said the advocacy group sent more than 25 similar letters to school districts across the state.

The changes come at a price for the districts.

The high school district has on its agenda an item to hire counsel for the transition at an initial price tag of $5,000, plus hourly costs.

Merced city schools are using their general counsel for legal representation on the transition, but recently approved a $3,000 contract for the creation of trustee-area election maps.

They chose to hire the Merced County Association of Governments for the task because a consultant would have charged $500 an hour.

"While this is a somewhat costly process, it is considerably more costly to be sued," Merced City School District Superintendent Terry Brace said.

In 2004, Hanford Joint Union School District was sued by the Lawyers' Committee for violating the same law and had to pay out $100,000 in settlement fees before their transition, Forster said.

The Madera Unified School District was sued in late August and is now battling the issue in court.

Once a suit is filed, school districts are responsible for the committee's legal fees, according to the law.

"Litigation is always counterproductive and a last resort," Forster said. "If a district voluntarily changes, than they avoid any costs associated with a suit."

Forster said he couldn't speak specifically to the situation in Merced, but indicated the threat of litigation decreases when districts are working toward voluntary reform.

Once the committee gets confirmation that there's voluntary change occurring, it will work with the districts to agree on a timetable, he said.

Brace and Scambray said things should be in order before the November 2009 elections.

"We think that's great and we really appreciate the fact that they are responsive to our letters," Forster said. "We wouldn't have sent out the letter unless we thought there really was a problem."

A legal problem that both districts hope to head off with outside experts while they still have room to maneuver.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.