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Manteca USD trying to fix something that isn’t broken

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POSTED February 26, 2014 12:42 a.m.

There is no Hispanic on the Manteca Unified School District board. There is also not an Asian-Pacific Islander trustee.

This matters because the absence of one could cost the school district $3 million.

And you can thank the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Sacramento’s dictate is simple. They want school districts and cities to switch to elections where trustees are selected to represent specific areas and are elected only by those people in said area.

Actually, the act doesn’t say that per se. What it does, however, is protect districts and cities that do go to district elections  from being sued by ethnic groups that contend the odds are stacked  against them when it comes to winning in local elections. Sacramento’s logic is that at-large elections are fundamentally flawed against minority representation.

The cities of Manteca, Ripon and Lathrop do not elect council members by areas. They are all at-large. Ripon and Manteca unified school districts require trustees to reside in specific areas but voters district-wide elect them.

The City of Modesto paid $3 million in attorney fees to the plaintiffs that sued them under the voting rights act. Three Latino voters contended the at-large election system made it impossible for Hispanics to get elected. Despite comprising 25 percent of Modesto’s population, only one Hispanic had been elected to the City Council between 1911 and when the suit was filed. Voters opted to go with electing council members by district starting in the 2009 balloting. In Modesto, vast areas in the city’s southwest and west with a distinct socio-economic concentration were not represented on the council.

In November, Manteca Unified voters will be asked if they want to elect trustees by district only, instead of district-wide voting. The exercise in futility is costing $170,000.

It is an exercise in futility because if voters opt to keep how trustees are now elected the district could still be sued and forced to go to district elections anyway with the added bonus of incurring legal costs.

School districts switching to district elections have said it is a “business decision” to avoid the cost that the threat of a lawsuit represents. Manteca Unified was going to ask for a waiver from the San Joaquin County Board of Education and bypass the November ballot and go directly to district elections. But then a former board member – Dale Fritchen – and Manteca resident Bruce Lownsbery argued that in doing so the trustees would essentially be disenfranchising voters from having a say over how they are represented.

Can’t argue with that, although a case could be made that Sacramento has already indirectly disenfranchised voters by setting the stage for dire consequences if local school districts and cities don’t kowtow and go to district elections.

There are pluses to district elections and downsides as well.

District elected trustees or council members have a greater obligation out of the gate to the area that they represent. This can be good and it can be bad. In the best case it focuses attention on neighborhood and area needs without them always being subservient to the bigger picture. In the worst-case scenario it can lead to a balkanization of a school district or a city.

Too bad voters in November won’t be given a third option: A hybrid election process.

Since Manteca Unified has seven trustees, why not elect five by district and two at-large? The district representatives would be elected only by those voters within a district. All district voters would elect the two at-large members.

From the get go, five trustees would have a larger concern with their specific district issues while two would take a more universal view.

Obviously, trustees should all take a universal view. But the California Voting Rights Act 2001 assumes that is not the case.

You could argue that the November election is the case of the school board trying to fix something that isn’t broken.

But then again, if you look at pure numbers and stop being color blind it isn’t working. That assumes your objective is not the quality of education given to each kid regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation and instead are focusing only on the color of the skin of elected trustees.

At the end of the day the question must be asked: Are there legitimate and sizable socioeconomic pockets in the Manteca Unified that are being underserved?

Give that the district has what is considered by the state as an ideal model for the education of migrant  farmworkers’ children and has gone out of its way to make sure every high school and elementary campus is created as equal as humanely possible one has to wonder why so much stock was placed in an attorney’s advice to go to district elections?

The school district has never been threatened with a voting rights lawsuit. Instead they appear to be making what is basically a business decision based on the possibility someone might sue.

It’s an interesting lesson in civics for the future voters that the Manteca Unified School District board is entrusted with educating.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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