Unclear if by-area elections will foster diversity

For the first time, voters in Fresno Unified and two other large school districts next month will elect trustees solely from the areas or neighborhoods they will represent.

The change, pushed by Hispanic groups, is designed to give minority candidates a fair shot at being elected and protect districts from civil-rights lawsuits. Yet the switch from at-large to by-area voting hasn't unleashed a stampede of new candidates, and it remains to be seen whether local governing boards will become more diverse.

For example, only two of the four Fresno Unified seats are contested, and only one race fielded Hispanic candidates. Just one of three races in the State Center Community College District is being contested; one candidate is Hispanic.

In Central Unified, four of seven trustee area seats are up for election, and all four incumbents are running again. Only Area 2 incumbent Judith Geringer faces a challenger, newcomer Julia Shields.

The lone district bucking the trend is Madera Unified, which was pressured into by-area elections that began last year. On Nov. 2, three Hispanic candidates will vie for school board seats -- a stark contrast to 2006, when no Hispanic candidates competed.

Voters shouldn't expect dramatic changes quickly, said attorney Robert Rubin, legal director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. The San Francisco-based group sued Madera Unified and threatened several other local school districts with legal action.

"Changes in law are not always immediately followed by changes in practice," he said. "You have the issue of a community that has long been disenfranchised, and you cannot be expected to immediately have a cadre of candidates ready to run for office."

In California, many districts have changed election procedures after critics said they failed to follow the 2002 Voting Rights Act. The act requires public agencies to elect representatives by areas if it's proven that at-large elections -- in which all voters can vote for any candidate -- decrease the chances for a minority candidate to win.

Hispanic groups have pushed hard for the change, saying candidates favored by minorities often lose to white candidates equipped with the cash to finance large, city-wide campaigns.

The new voting system may already have helped change the face of the Madera Unified board. Last year, Hispanic candidate Ric Arredondo won a seat in a special election. Arredondo doesn't know for sure if the switch to by-area elections helped him defeat another Hispanic candidate. He said he'd like to think people voted for the candidate they believed would best represent them.

But Arredondo believes Hispanics are more interested in the election process now that by-area elections are required.

"It increases civic participation," he said. "I think that neighborhoods are more confident that their voices are being heard."

Two Hispanics are now on Madera Unified's seven-member board -- a district where 82% of students are Hispanic. As many as two more could be added after the Nov. 2 election, creating a Hispanic majority on the board.

Altogether, four seats in Madera Unified are up for election and only one incumbent -- Michael Salvador -- is running again. Incumbent Loraine Goodwin is seeking election to George Radanovich's 19th District seat in Congress. Michael Westley, another incumbent, said he opted not to run because he no longer has the time to commit to the job. And board president Philip Janzen has moved into a different trustee area that is not up for election.

Westley is supporting Jose Rodriguez, who is running against Loretta Edwards for Area 7. Rodriguez hopes by-area elections will help him win, but at least they certainly level the playing field, he said.

At-large elections aren't cheap. And, he said, the chances of a Hispanic candidate winning such an election "are pretty dim."

Fewer competitive races are on the ballot for Fresno Unified and State Center, which were pressured by El Concilio de Fresno to change voting procedures.

Venancio Gaona, chairman of El Concilio, said he would have liked to have seen more candidates from the Chicano/Latino community. But the short lead time to the elections was a hardship, he said, and some potential candidates couldn't commit because of family, business or other reasons.

Gaona is confident that will change in 2012.

"We feel that we have had an impact in terms of raising the consciousness of especially the Latino community," he said.

In State Center, which spans more than 5,500 square miles in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings counties, two incumbents are unopposed.

The only race is between Humberto Garza, an author and retired university professor, and Ron Nishinaka, projects director for Tree Fresno and a retired Reedley College instructor. They are competing to replace incumbent Les Thonesen, who is retiring after nearly 30 years on the board.

Because of State Center's vast size, Garza doubted he could raise enough cash for a district-wide race. His target is $10,000 to campaign in Area 4, which includes Dinuba, Reedley and Sanger and much of southeastern Fresno County.

Garza said he supports the voting change, saying he is "a firm believer that people in their own district should elect who they want to represent them."

Nishinaka said he was committed to the race, even if the district hadn't moved to by-area elections.

"But it would have been more challenging" to run in the entire district, he said.

In Fresno Unified, the two candidates for the Area 1 (Edison High) seat are African-American, even though the area is one of those newly designated as a majority Hispanic area.

In Area 3 (Sunnyside High), Silvia Astorga Salcido is challenging incumbent Valerie Davis -- the same match-up as the last election. Both have Hispanic roots.

Davis insists she has the edge because her daughters attended neighborhood schools where she sat on the PTAs; Salcido's son attended Catholic school.

"I believe I am stronger in my own community," Davis said.

But Salcido believes this election will produce a different result because Davis can't rely on votes from outside the Sunnyside area.

"If it was still at-large [voting], I would not have run," Salcido said.

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