Petition error delays push for Fresno Unified special election

The Fresno BeeJanuary 8, 2013 

An error by the Fresno County Office of Education has complicated plans to force a special election in the McLane High trustee area.

County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell said Tuesday his office erred in advising petitioners about the number of signatures needed for an election to be called.

They were told they needed to collect 300-plus signatures -- and collected 560 -- but a further review of education law found they should have collected at least 2,300 signatures, Powell said.

Powell said he will ask his board for permission to seek a waiver from the state Board of Education to allow an additional 30 days to collect signatures.

That will push the timetable for a possible special election to as far off as September. In the meantime, school board-appointed trustee Christopher De La Cerda will continue to represent the McLane area.

Petitioners said Tuesday afternoon they were uncertain of their next move.

"It has hit this group quite hard," said Michelle Asadoorian, a Fresno Unified trustee in the Bullard High area who helped with the McLane petition drive.

Asadoorian said the group relied on information from the Fresno County Office of Education, which has the authority to grant or deny the petition.

They were told by Linda Bacon, an attorney in the office, they needed signatures only from McLane area voters. "The reality is, her legal opinion was inaccurate," Asadoorian said.

The 300-signature threshold represented 1.5% of voters in the McLane area in the 2010 election, Powell said. A subsequent review found that the law requires that signatures be collected from 1.5% of the district's 157,322 voters, he said.

Powell said that once he discovered the error, "I couldn't compound it by calling an election."

The petition drive was undertaken after trustees appointed De La Cerda to the board in November. He replaced Tony Vang, who resigned in September amid a controversy about his residency in the McLane area.

Trustees noted at the time that conducting a special election to fill the seat could cost as much as $125,000.

If an election is called, De La Cerda would be removed from the board and the trustee post would remain vacant until the election.

His appointed term ends in 2014. De La Cerda has said he would seek election should a special election be called, and Tuesday he said that decision stands.

Petitioners had hoped for a special election in May or June when they turned the petition in on Dec. 7. Powell had 30 days to validate the petition.

Tuesday, Powell said the earliest the state Board of Education could consider a waiver to allow petitioners more time to gather signatures would be March, and even with approval of a waiver, an election could not be held until September. The petitioners also would have the option of asking a judge to authorize the election.

Mai Summer Vue, an FUSD teacher who pushed for a special election, said a delayed election would be better than none at all. The people "have the right to practice their democracy," she said.

Vue said the petitioners will meet in the next couple of days to decide whether to "pursue more signatures -- or just fold."

It's feasible that supporters can collect enough signatures, she said. "We collected 560 signatures in two weekends, and so if we have 30 days I would say it's very doable, especially when you have a good number of people who believe in the process and who are dedicated."

Asadoorian said collecting signatures districtwide would have been easier all along, and had petitioners been given correct advice, "it wouldn't have been an issue."

Making it an issue now is unfair to the petitioners, she said: "This group of people who worked so hard and so diligently and so thoughtfully had the rug pulled out from under them."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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