Clovis Unified School District is embarking on changing how trustees will be elected to the School Board starting in 2024.
Four trustee seats — Areas 2, 4, 5, and 7 — would be elected by trustee area voters instead of by all district voters for the first time in the district’s history.
Board members in the past have emphasized the importance of at-large voting which they say helps guarantee that trustees focus on the entire district and not just their trustee area. Up to now, the trustees have been elected to represent specific areas but must campaign across the entire district to be elected.
Voting rights advocates consider by-area elections important for minority representation on elected bodies. The four Clovis Unified School District seats that will be up for election in 2024 are held by David DeFrank, Hugh Awtrey, Steven Fogg, and Yolanda Moore. Moore is the board’s only person of color.
Last week, the board approved a resolution to undertake a lengthy process of determining district demographics, holding public hearings, and then finishing the trustee election map in time for the 2024 elections.
The process was initiated in 2021 by the board but was delayed after the pandemic presented challenges to scheduling public hearings that are necessary prior to implementing a trustee election map.
Supreme Court Decision Pending
The board’s resolution references an ongoing court case, Pico Neighborhood Association v. the City of Santa Monica. That case raises issues concerning at-large voting and the California Voting Rights Act and that is now under review by the California Supreme Court.
The resolution said district officials will take the court’s decision into consideration when formulating the new method of elections.
District spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the court’s ruling could result in changes to the processes that the district must follow, and that could create further delays.
EdSource reported last week that the district recently received a letter threatening legal action from a Malibu law firm, Shenkman and Hughes, that has a long history of suing cities and school districts that still use at-large elections.
Neither the law firm nor the district immediately responded to a request for the letter.
Multiple Public Hearings Required
The resolution directs Superintendent Corrine Fulmer to work with legal counsel and a demographer, “and any other appropriate consultants as needed” to analyze the district’s demographics and develop a draft map with seven trustee areas.
But before the maps can be drawn, the district will need to hold at least two public hearings over a 30-day period to get public input. Once the draft maps are created, the district then must hold at least two more public hearings over a 45-day period for more public input.
The proposed maps then must go to the Fresno County Commission on School District Reorganization, which has to hold at least one public hearing before voting to approve or reject the district’s change from at-large to by-area elections.
Is Clovis Council Next?
And what about Clovis City Council, which still conducts at-large elections? Clovis Mayor Lynne Ashbeck did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
Later Monday Ashbeck told GV Wire that the city is in the process of getting demographic information that will help determine whether there has been disproportionate representation as a result of at-large elections.
She said the city manager is preparing a report that could go to the council as early as September.
Clovis has been studying the issue for several years after receiving a letter from another law firm that threatened legal action because of the city’s at-large elections. The letter arrived too late in 2020 for the city to have time to schedule needed public hearings prior to the 2021 elections, and then the city subsequently decided to switch its elections to match the presidential elections in even years, Ashbeck said.
But before making a decision on whether to transition to by-area elections, city officials want to review the demographic analysis and city manager’s report, she said.
Clovis Unified’s decision to transition will not put extra pressure on the city, she said.
“I would say the circumstance is a little bit different in that their district is half Fresno, half Clovis, so their demographics are different than the city of Clovis,” Ashbeck said.