Legal muscle sought for Fresno Unified trustee election

The Fresno BeeJanuary 22, 2013 

People seeking a special election in the McLane High School trustee area want legal help asking a judge to force the issue.

Petitioners learned this month that incorrect information from the Fresno County Office of Education kept them from collecting enough signatures to trigger an election.

The group has asked Central California Legal Services to take its case and is waiting for the nonprofit law firm's response, said Jose Barraza, a member of the committee that oversaw the petition drive.

Barraza is a member of El Concilio de Fresno, a nonprofit advocacy organization that challenged Fresno Unified School District to break elections into areas instead of district at-large races.

Chris Schneider, executive director of Central California Legal Services, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Going to court appeared to be the quickest way to resolve the issue, Barraza said. Otherwise, the group could have to wait for the state Board of Education to approve a waiver allowing them an additional 30 days to collect signatures.

The petitioners learned Jan. 7 that the 560 signatures they collected were not enough, even though they had been told they would only need about 300 -- representing 1.5% of voters in the McLane area in the 2010 election.

Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell said his office had erred in advising the 300-signature goal; a subsequent review found they needed at least 2,300 signatures -- 1.5% of the district's 157,322 voters.

Powell said Jan. 8 that he would ask his board for permission to seek a waiver from the state to allow petitioners more time to collect signatures.

On Tuesday, Powell said the board will call a special meeting to discuss a waiver, but a public hearing has yet to be scheduled. He expects the board to meet the first week of February.

It could be September before an election could be held, if a waiver is approved by the state, Powell has said. In the meantime, school board-appointed trustee Christopher De La Cerda will continue to represent the McLane area.

The petition drive was undertaken after trustees appointed De La Cerda to the board in November, over the objections of residents and two trustees who wanted the district to hold an election. He replaced Tony Vang, who resigned in September amid a controversy about his residency in the McLane area.

De La Cerda's appointed term ends in 2014. If a special election is called, he would be removed from the board and the trustee post would remain vacant until the election.

Trustees have said conducting a special election to fill the seat could cost as much as $125,000.

Mai Summer Vue, a Fresno Unified teacher who helped with the petition drive, said Powell has been honest and upfront about his office's mistake, "but it does not excuse it was a mistake. We cannot let their mistakes violate ... that community's right to vote for a representative that they deserve."

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

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