Community activist Chris Milton says Clovis Unified School District is breaking state law and failing to provide true representation to residents by continuing to elect trustees at large instead of by area.
A more diverse board, Milton said in a recent open letter to the district posted on Facebook, would be more responsive to people of varying income levels, races, and ethnicities, many of whom are speaking out about problems in the district in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and subsequent protests.
All the Clovis Unified board needs to do, said Milton, a local businessman who has become a vocal advocate for ending racism and improving social justice, is go to the Fresno County Register of Voters and “re-register” the district’s elections.
State law, however, indicates the process is more cumbersome and would require a series of public hearings for community input. However, an executive order that Gov. Gavin Newsom issued in March has suspended such hearings.
Time to Make a Change?
Clovis Unified officials have been talking about how trustees are elected since last year, district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.
Superintendent Eimear O’Farrell raised at-large elections with the board after attending a workshop on the topic at last year’s annual conference of the California School Boards Association, Avants said.
But the district can’t hold the public hearings required by state law because of Newsom’s Executive Order N-34-20, she said,
Public Hearings Are Required
The process for changing how trustees are elected is spelled out in state law: Districts must hold two hearings over no more than 30 days where the public can weigh in on suggested area boundaries.
After the two public hearings, the district draws up one or more proposed maps for the trustee districts and publishes at least one of the maps for public review.
“It’s not even a question — they are breaking the law.” — Businessman and activist Chris Milton
In addition, if the trustees are to serve staggered terms (as they do now), the board would need to publish the potential sequence of elections.
After that, the district would need to hold two more public hearings within 45 days so residents can weigh in on proposed boundaries and election sequence. Any revisions at a hearing or afterward would need to be published at least seven days before the board can take its final vote.
The timeframes for those hearings were suspended in Newsom’s order.
Discussion Will Continue
The district continues to do preparatory work so it will be ready for the day when the governor’s executive order is no longer in effect, Avants said.
But at this point, there would be no changes to how trustees are elected on the November ballot, she said.
Four trustee seats — Areas 2, 4, 5, and 7 — are up for election to four-year terms in November.
Trustee Susan Hatmaker said the governor might decide that the pandemic should not preclude government bodies from making changes and allow hearings to be conducted virtually. That would enable the process to continue, but at the risk of excluding community members who don’t have access to the internet, she said.
Will Clovis District Still Be Unified?
Hatmaker, who won election to the board for the first time two years ago, and trustee Ginny Hovsepian, who has served on the board since 1991 and whose Area 2 seat is up for election in November, told GV Wire℠ that they want to hear from other trustees before making up their minds.
“We work for every student and parent in the district if we are elected at large.” — Area 2 trustee Ginny Hovsepian
The other five Clovis Unified trustees could not be reached for comment.
Hatmaker said that as a trustee in her first term, she recognizes that area elections could make a trustee seat more accessible because candidates could focus their campaigning — and their campaign treasuries — on just a portion of the district.
But Hovsepian said she wonders how an election change would benefit a unified school district. She said she gets calls from people from all over the district, not just from Area 2.
“We work for every student and parent in the district if we are elected at large,” she said.
Clovis Unified is considered a “hybrid” district, in which trustees are elected districtwide but must live in one of the seven trustee areas.
Law Designed to Improve Representation
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 made it easier for underrepresented groups to prove that their votes were diluted in at-large elections, denying them the opportunity for representation by one of their members.
“I don’t want to spend money on attorneys, I’d rather spend it on kids. If we can take steps to make sure we’re not out of the law, it’s something I’d be interested in.” — Area 1 trustee Susan Hatmaker
If Clovis Unified won’t take action to change how trustees are elected, Milton said, he and his team are prepared to move forward with a lawsuit claiming that the district is violating state law by continuing to have at-large elections.
“It’s not even a question — they are breaking the law,” he said.
Some school districts across California changed how their trustees are elected after they were sued, while others — perhaps in anticipation of a lawsuit — changed their trustee elections voluntarily.
Hatmaker said she would prefer to avoid litigation if possible.
“I don’t want to spend money on attorneys, I’d rather spend it on kids,” she said. “If we can take steps to make sure we’re not out of the law, it’s something I’d be interested in.”