The Terry Bradley Educational Center, outside of southeast Fresno, is the latest growth area for Clovis Unified School District. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez / Fresnoland

This story was originally published by EdSource, a nonprofit news organization covering education policy in California.

Clovis Unified School District, the state’s 15th largest school district, plans to switch from its at-large voting system to trustee-area-based voting by the 2024 election, joining most of the state’s other large districts in how they elect their school board members. 

The school board, which represents more than 40,000 students, started the process to change its election method Wednesday. A resolution stated the board’s intention to change its practice, in part, because of a 2016 lawsuit alleging that the City of Santa Monica’s at-large elections were discriminatory and violated the California Voting Rights Act. 

But that may not have been the school board’s only driving force for the change. 

According to a document shared with EdSource, Shenkman & Hughes, a Malibu-based law firm with a long history of threatening and seeking legal recourse against cities and school districts still using at-large elections, threatened legal action against CUSD just last month. 

In many of California’s school districts, especially in large school systems, residents from designated areas elect a board member to represent them. 

At-large elections, traditionally, allow candidates to live in any part of the school district and be voted on by all residents. 

For Clovis Unified, even though all registered voters can cast a vote in each school board race, candidates must live in the area they represent – making its method a combination of at-large and area-based procedures. 

Though its method somewhat differs, Clovis Unified is among 14 of Fresno County’s 32 school districts that conducts at-large elections, according to November 2022 election data. Clovis Unified is by far the largest school district with at-large elections in Fresno County.

Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 200 California school districts transitioned to trustee-area-based elections in hopes of improving the representation of diverse communities.  Before 2008, almost 70 other districts, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest, already held trustee-area elections. The state’s third-largest school district, Fresno Unified, does trustee-area elections as well. 

“Maybe this is going to add additional priority to the district (trustee area) that we’re elected in, even as we continue to keep a district-wide perspective,” said Clint Olivier, a Clovis Unified school board member elected this past November.

Reflecting on his time as a two-term Fresno City Council member, a position in which his “neighbors” elected him, Olivier said by-district voting “fosters an environment where each member has to wear two hats:” one for their individual districts and one for the city. Each city council member, he said, had to discern what hat to wear and when to wear it, knowing when they must advocate for the area they represent or for the entire city.

Why the change?

Despite the number of districts still using an “at-large” method, a key reason for Clovis Unified seeking a change is an ongoing legal battle questioning the method elsewhere, the CUSD resolution details. 

The Pico Neighborhood Association in 2016  sued the City of Santa Monica, alleging that the city’s at-large elections discriminated against Latino voters and violated the California Voting Rights Act. Decisions have gone back and forth as a Los Angeles court ruled against the city in 2018 but an appeals court overturned the ruling in 2020. Since then, the case has been pending in the California Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the voting rights act violation later this year. 

The 2001 California Voting Rights Act makes it easier for minority groups to challenge alleged discriminatory voting practices, forcing cities or districts to change their election process. The law focuses on at-large elections, which can arguably deny representation for minority communities who would otherwise be able to elect their preferred candidates if voting was done by area. 

But the Santa Monica lawsuit isn’t the first lawsuit to question at-large elections. 

Other lawsuits have targeted school districts specifically. In 2019, West Contra Costa Unified in the Bay Area got rid of its at-large election after a lawsuit alleged that the elections for the nearly 30,000-student district did not give African-American and Latino voters adequate representation on the five-member board.

In San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles Joint Unified took steps to convert to trustee-area elections following a 2019 threat of a lawsuit. 

Based on the June 2023 letter shared with EdSource, Shenkman & Hughes –the law firm that threatened the Paso Robles school district and is representing the plaintiffs in the Santa Monica case – urged Clovis Unified to change its voting system or face legal action. 

Encompassing nearly 40% of the student population, Latino students make up a slim majority in Clovis Unified compared to 35% of white students, the state dashboard shows. However, Latinos, Shenkman & Hughes said, have not been able to elect a candidate of their choice or influence the election. When Latino candidates sought election in the school district, the law firm continued, the results “demonstrate racially polarized voting” as the Latino community supported the candidates, but not white voters. 

Many in the Clovis Unified community are looking forward to area-based elections because of the better representation it will provide.

“There’s a reason that at-large elections are illegal and that is because they tend to marginalize certain populations,” said Kristin Heimerdinger, a teacher and spokesperson for the Association of Clovis Educators, a group attempting to unionize teachers in the district. 

Although the June letter was addressed to the school board president and clerk and the school district, it was not on Wednesday’s board agenda. 

Based on CUSD’s resolution, however, changing the election method isn’t a new discussion.Over the years,  including in November 2021, the board considered a switch, according to the board resolution. But because the pandemic restricted public meetings – a required step in changing the election method – the board didn’t start the process. 

What happens now? 

Now that federal and state governments have lifted health and safety measures, the board can start the up to 10-month process to elect its board members by trustee area. 

Following its resolution, the school board must hold five public hearings about trustee-area maps between now and January 2024 and submit a proposal to the Fresno County Committee on School District Organization for another public hearing in February or March 2024. 

Because Clovis Unified board members must live in the areas they represent, the district is already divided into trustee areas. 

So part of the process, according to Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants, will consider whether new trustee area maps are needed. (The maps were most recently updated after the 2020 Census.) If the district maintains its current trustee-area maps, the process will be shorter.

“The movement to area-based elections will provide more inclusive representation and better community engagement,” Heimerdinger said. “Those are welcome changes to the governing board election process.” 

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