The Turlock Unified School District Board of Trustees voted to transition from odd to even year elections Tuesday, effectively postponing what would have been the next Board member election in November to 2018. While a majority of the Board approved the change that aims to increase voter turnout, two trustees who voiced their intent during the Feb. 7 meeting to not seek reelection in 2017 voted against the change.
This move comes as a result of Senate Bill 415, which requires school districts to hold elections on even years (at the same time as statewide elections) if holding an election on odd years has previously resulted in a significant decrease in voter turnout – 25 percent less than the average voter turnout for the previous four statewide elections.
Attorney Mike Smith provided voter data from the Registrar of Voters to Trustees Tuesday that compared the 2013 odd year election to the four previous statewide elections in 2010 and 2012. The voter turnout percentage difference was 27 percent in Trustee Area 2 and 29 percent in Trustee Area 6.
“These two trustee areas — using 2013 data — would say that you must make the move,” said Smith.
Smith also provided Trustees with data comparing the 2015 odd year election to four state elections in 2012 and 2014, however, this information presented an “unanswered legal question” as all four trustee areas up for election were uncontested. For example, looking at data for Trustee Area 1 showed that the district had no voter turnout in 2015 compared to the 45 percent average voter turnout from the four statewide elections.
“Does Trustee Area 1 have a 45 percent differential or do you have to throw that out?,” asked Smith.
Smith said that taking into consideration this data from the Registrar of Voters, it is likely that Turlock Unified would have been compelled to make the move from odd to even year elections. Whether or not the District is mandated to move to even year elections, however, remains unclear due to absence of data from the 2016 election and the lack of certainty regarding how to calculate voter turnout when there is an uncontested election.
“Your resolution allows you to go from odd to even, even if the data doesn’t compel it, because it’s basically saying we think this is in the best interest of the community because we’re going to increase voter participation by moving to the statewide general election process,” said Smith.
Following Tuesday’s adoption, the District must now submit a resolution by March 12 to the County Board of Supervisors, who will vote sometime in May or June whether or not to approve the resolution and finalize the transition.
In June or August, the Board will make a provisional appointment for Trustee Jennifer Carter, who announced during the Feb. 7 meeting that she would most likely be resigning in the early summer due to a job change. In the period between December and next February, the Board might also have to find a provisional appointment for Trustee Bob Weaver after he said that he was thinking of serving out his current term, set to expire at the end of the year, and probably would not seek reelection.
The announcements by Carter and Weaver led to a discussion of changing the make-up of the Board of Trustees during the Feb. 7 meeting and trustees continued that conversation Tuesday as they received more information regarding the transition process from a seven to five-member Board.
Board Chair Barney Gordon voiced his opposition to moving to a five-member Board immediately.
“It’s not a decision to be taken lightly,” said Gordon. “I think it would require a considerable amount of discussion and consultation with the community. From the work that Mr. Smith has done, it has shown me that that is simply not an option to us. I don’t think it would be appropriate.”
The reduction of Board membership from seven members to five members is a multi-step process involving the coordination and agreement from the Board, County Committee on School District Organization and State Board of Education. The District will also have to hire a demographer as a Board reduction will also require the redrawing of trustee areas.
Smith said that the first step would be to initiate the process on the District level, which would mean adopting a resolution signaling intent to reduce membership and engaging a demographer. The second step would require the Board to hold at least five public hearings: two on the potential map composition, two to review the proposed maps and one to choose and approve a proposed map. For the third step, the District must submit their resolution to the County Committee addressing the Board reduction and chosen map. The committee will then hold a hearing and vote to approve and deny the resolution.
Smith said that if the County Committee approves the District’s proposal to decrease Board membership, the District must hold an election to seek voter approval of the change. However, the District has the option of seeking a waiver from the SBE, which Smith said is a faster process and more cost-efficient.
“That’s the process that we would be recommending,” said Smith.
If the Board were to opt for a waiver from the SBE, Smith said that they will first have to follow certain procedural steps, including hosting another public hearing to gain input on whether or not the District should waive its duty to seek voter approval of the change and submitting a waiver request to the SBE, which will hold a hearing of their own.
“It’s not complicated, it just takes a little time,” said Smith.
If the SBE approves the waiver, the Board will adopt a final resolution and the change will be implemented at the next board member election. If the SBE does not approve the waiver, however, the proposed board member reduction and trustee area rearranging will be placed on the ballot at the next succeeding board election
The Board did not take any action Tuesday regarding the possible reduction from a seven to five-member board, but expressed interest in continuing discussions in the future.