California school board races don’t see red wave

Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Robert Macias marks his ballot for the California primary at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento on June 7, 2022.

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Parental angst over Covid school closures and protocols didn’t seem to be enough to flip California school board seats in more liberal areas of California, despite the efforts of the state Republican Party and other conservative groups.

The state GOP Parent Revolt program and other conservative organizations spent more than a year recruiting, training and endorsing an army of candidates in an effort to win what are generally considered nonpartisan seats. Their goal: Flip school boards to promote conservative issues including fighting educational policies on gender identity and racial equity.

The result of these efforts is hard to know at this time, as the dust has yet to settle on many of the closer races. The state’s move to mail-in ballots also is expected to delay results, as late-arriving ballots are tallied and signatures verified. Although all ballots must have been postmarked by Nov. 8, ballots that arrive at the elections offices within a week of that date are counted.

Shawn Steel, who represents California on the Republican National Committee, has indicated that the effort to flip school boards would continue in the coming years. He opted not to be interviewed for this story because election results are not final.

Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization, endorsed 270 candidates nationwide, including 50 in California. Opponents of the organization have called their positions bigoted, homophobic, racist fearmongering and extremist, according to Newsweek.

The group focused a lot of its attention on Santa Clara County, where it endorsed eight candidates. Only one candidate appears to have won a seat.

Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidate Marc Cooper has the third-highest vote count in a tight race that will decide three trustee seats on the Franklin-McKinley School District board in San Jose. He has 17% of the vote, trailing Steve Sanchez and Rudy Rodriguez who have 19% and 18% of the vote respectively. Three other candidates are within 3 percentage points of taking one of the seats, according to results updated Wednesday afternoon. Rodriguez was endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party.

Morgan Hill Unified candidate Dennis Delisle was also endorsed by Moms for Liberty. The businessman was the lone candidate for the seat until the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about racist and homophobic statements he made in a book he authored. The article prompted two candidates to join the race just before the filing deadline.

One of the challengers, retired school librarian Terri Knudsen, was leading with 43% of the vote on Wednesday. Delisle had 29% and attorney Armando Benavides had 28% of the vote. Both Knudsen and Benavides were endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party.

“I think that voters trust teachers and librarians, and people with experience in education,” Knudsen said. “I was knocking door to door and tried to connect with as many people as possible. They seemed to be very happy I was running.”

Morgan Hill has a community of Democrats and Republicans who don’t always vote along party lines, she said.

“Candidates with extreme views are less likely to be supported by parents and families in Morgan Hill,” she said. “It’s more of a middle-of-the-road base that doesn’t want politics to invade this space. We want what is best for kids.”

Knudsen didn’t have much time to campaign for office, but she received help from the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers whose members made phone calls and knocked on doors for her.

“When your teachers call and say they support these people and they know about education, that is a big help,” Knudsen said.

In more conservative areas of the state, like Placer County near Sacramento, the efforts of the Republican Party and other conservative groups generated great enthusiasm and crowded school board races.

Moms for Liberty took a particular interest in school board races in that county, endorsing 23 candidates. Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin also teamed up with the Christian advocacy group the American Council to recruit candidates to advance a “biblical worldview,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

Although most residents of Placer County are conservative, Roseville, a suburban city near Sacramento, is more mixed politically. Jonathan Zachreson is running for one of three open seats on the Roseville City School District board. He was endorsed by the Republican Party, Moms for Liberty, the American Council and Kevin Kiley, who is running against Democrat Kermit Jones for a U.S. House seat.

After Covid-19 closed schools, Zachreson, a father of three, created the Reopen California Schools Facebook page to give a voice to parents frustrated by the closures, and later by mask and vaccination mandates.

Despite the endorsements and exposure, Zachreson is tied for last place with an opponent with similar endorsements, Kent Meyer. Both had about 17% of the vote Thursday morning. The top vote getters were incumbents Alisa Fong, with 29% of the vote, and Rob Baquera, with 21% of the vote. Fong is endorsed by the Republican Party and Kevin Kiley, while Baquera is not endorsed by a political party.

Zachreson, like Knudsen, says he wants to ensure that politics don’t creep into the classroom. Instead, he says, schools should concentrate on core academics. He would like schools to stay away from controversial or “hot-button” issues surrounding gender and racism.

If Zachreson wins a seat, he plans to meet with the teachers to discuss the possibility of the district teachers union breaking away from the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“What are roadblocks? I have heard some want to leave the union and there are benefits that keep them there,” Zachreson said. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate to find what those things are and to help them do that.”

In nearby San Juan Unified in Sacramento, candidate Jeffrey Erik Perrine, a member of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, is losing his bid for a school board seat. He recently told The Sacramento Bee that he wants teachers to focus on teaching and not on indoctrinating students.

Perrine has not been endorsed by the Republican Party, who ousted him from the party after they learned of his affiliation with the Proud Boys, which has been aligned with white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Instead, the GOP endorsed Tanya Kravchuck, a child welfare worker. She is leading with 42% of the vote, followed closely by incumbent Michael McKibben, a retired education administrator, who has 38% of the vote. Perrine has 21% of the vote.

In San Diego, GOP-backed candidate Becca Williams is in a tight race for a seat on the San Diego Unified Board. She is up against Democrat Cody Petterson, who teaches anthropology at UC San Diego. Petterson is leading 53% to her 47%.

That race has become a partisan brawl about abortion, vouchers and Texas, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Political Action Committees have spent more than $367,000 either supporting or attacking the two candidates, according to the paper.

Williams, a curriculum company manager, is endorsed by the state Republican Party and the American Council. Petterson is endorsed by the San Diego Unified Teachers Union, which has called Williams a “MAGA extremist,” “Covid conspiracist” and “Texas Republican,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The California Teachers Association typically offers endorsements in about 500 school board races each election year and hasn’t increased its endorsements this year, according to a spokesperson.

Far-right political provocateur and commentator and retired San Francisco Giants slugger Aubrey Huff has failed in his attempt to win a seat on the board of the Solano Beach School District in San Diego County, Sports Illustrated and other news outlets reported.

Huff, who has no political endorsements, lost to the board’s sitting vice president, Debra Schade, 1,505 votes to 362 in the two-person race. Little was known about Huff’s campaign platform and his personal website makes no mention of his candidacy.

Citing Huff’s offensive political positions and offensive comments about women, the Giants banned Huff in 2020 from attending a 10-year reunion of the franchise’s 2010 World Series championship team. Huff “has made multiple comments on social media that are unacceptable and run counter to the values of our organization,” a team spokesman said in a statement at the time.

Twitter also permanently banned Huff in 2021 for repeatedly tweeting false information about Covid-19 vaccines. He had also tweeted violent threats against former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

EdSource reporter Thomas Peele contributed to this report.

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