EDUCATION MATTERS: Partisan politics infects school board elections


By Marsha Sutton


Need candidates for office – Can you help?

The header on the “urgent call to action” email sent out by the chair of the San Diego County Republican Party delivered its message in unambiguous terms.

In case there was any doubt about the theme, the first sentence amplified the point: “I need your help to field candidates for specific office where an incumbent did not file for re-election, and we don’t have enough (in some cases, any) Republicans running.”

Coming from the chair of the local Republican Party, this plea for more Republican candidates seemed an appropriate call to action. It did, that is, until one read the offices listed in the email for which Republicans were being sought – among them, school board races.

I thought school board races were supposed to be nonpartisan. How naïve of me.

I was brought to my senses after reading all of Republican Party Chair Tony Krvaric’s email blast, wherein he implored recipients to recruit Republican candidates for 40 races county-wide – among them 21 school board races, including the north county school districts of Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, San Dieguito, Cardiff and Carlsbad. The letter was sent Aug. 10, one day before the filing deadline for races where an incumbent chose not to run again.

“The opportunity is tremendous; we can pick up seats and win by default if no one else filed,” the letter continued. “We can make sure that the Democrat who filed has a contest and doesn’t win by default, and – with an incumbent not filing – we have a great chance to win seats.”

Krvaric’s letter concluded with the following statement: “Thank you for helping us put more Republicans in office throughout San Diego County. As you very well know, these offices are stepping stones to higher office, and I’ll be darned if I will sit idly by and allow Democrats to get on these. As a wise man once told me, ‘Little Democrats become big Democrats.’”

When contacted about this email, Krvaric wrote, “We’re here to elect Republicans to ALL offices. There are no nonpartisan offices. All offices are opportunities to put Republican ideas of smaller government, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility into action.”

It would be hard to argue with those three particular ideas, not exclusively Republican by the way. It’s the other, more controversial positions endorsed by many ultra-conservatives in the Republican Party that, when applied to school districts and children, are more problematic.

School boards are no place for partisan politics. Remember the debacle the past two years over Obama’s innocuous speech to school children at the start of school, asking them to work hard and be good citizens? You would have thought he was asking each child to join the Communist Party, the way conservatives protested.

The Republican agenda has at times included such far-right ideology as the promotion of creationism over evolution in biology classes, distortion of historical facts in textbooks, censorship of English literature and library books, prayer and religious activity in school, questionable First Amendment rights positions, anti-gay views and undue interference in health and sex education classes.

Obviously, not every Republican on every school board thinks it appropriate to advocate any of these views at their schools. But the point of having nonpartisan elections for school boards is to avoid exposing children to the kinds of coarse political shenanigans we see at the national and state levels.

What happened with the Obama speech underscores the risk we run when we allow politics into our classrooms.

Krvaric’s description of school board seats as stepping stones to higher office is objectionable. School boards are no place for Republican or Democratic party platforms – and for no agendas other than the daily syllabus.

Local Republican endorsements

With this in mind, it was disconcerting to discover that two of the five candidates for the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education, Steven McDowell and Scott Wooden, include on their Web sites that they are endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party. The same with John Salazar in the San Dieguito Union High School District election.

People registered as Democrats or Republicans are usually endorsed by their respective political party, and that’s one thing. But to announce it and include that endorsement on one’s Web page seems quite another.

In Del Mar, neither McDowell nor Wooden seem particularly taken with right-wing ideology, which makes their public proclamations slightly puzzling. An incumbent, McDowell has a track record of not applying political litmus tests to issues, and Wooden’s long list of endorsements by people across the political spectrum offers some assurance that he too, if elected, would not inject party politics into the boardroom.

Although recent letters to the editor have been focused on the Del Mar election, it’s San Dieguito that voters should be more concerned about. There, the situation is more worrisome, because Salazar, unlike McDowell and Wooden, wears his Republicanism on his sleeve and lacks both history in office and broad-based endorsements that could serve to reassure voters that he has no political agenda.

Six candidates are vying for three seats in the San Dieguito district, and only one incumbent – Barbara Groth – is running for re-election. (As an aside, the district mourns the departure of outstanding board members Linda Friedman and Dee Rich who have chosen not to run again. Both trustees have been instrumental in helping the district achieve its enviable level of innovation and excellence, and their replacements will have large shoes to fill.)

A candidates’ forum on Oct. 13 introduced the public to five of the six candidates: Groth, Salazar, Andrew Brown, Sandra Timmons and Amy Herman. Candidate Rick Shea was unable to attend.

In answer to a question about the role of partisanship in a school board race, Salazar and Brown both said they were Republicans. Timmons and Herman did not state any party affiliation, while Groth, in an interview later, said she was registered nonpartisan.

Brown said the district should focus on what’s in the best interest of the kids. Although Republican, he did not list the Republican Party on the League of Women Voters “Smart Voter” list of key endorsements, an indication that party politics is not relevant to his candidacy.

Timmons said the issue was not important “as long as board members can focus on student achievement.” Herman said she did not seek any political endorsement.

Groth said it’s important to keep school boards nonpartisan. “Our kids are nonpartisan,” she said.

Salazar called it a complicated question. He said he is proud to be a Republican but he “did not solicit the endorsement of the Republican Party,” even though he included this on his Smart Voter list of endorsements.

Blood from a turnip

Salazar’s pledge on his Smart voter page “to find and eliminate administrative wasteful spending [and] protect taxpayers by ensuring all money spent benefits students and not the bloated bureaucracy” implies mismanagement of the district’s finances. But these charges ring hollow.

The top-ranked district has done a remarkable job maintaining high standards with fewer and fewer dollars, thanks in no small measure to direction from current school board members, which includes Groth.

Are there problems? Surely. Increased class sizes is an unfortunate consequence of the state’s bleak financial condition. But the district runs a tight ship in tough times, with talented administrators at the top and a solid board behind them. At San Dieguito, it sometimes seems you really can squeeze blood from a turnip.

After hearing both Brown and Salazar repeatedly defer to Groth at the forum to address questions they could not answer, it was apparent that even her opponents consider her the go-to person who best understands the district, its priorities and how it functions. And Groth’s track record of years of nonpartisan service on the San Dieguito school board demonstrates her apolitical approach to school governance.

Timmons and Herman both come armed with a long list of volunteer activity and years of involvement in the district, especially Timmons who offered sensible, thoughtful comments on a wide range of issues. And they, like Groth, appear to have no interest in promoting personal political agendas.

Voters should look for experience in the school district and knowledge of district funding and operations, as well as an open, inquisitive, civil attitude that will contribute meaningfully to the difficult discussions sure to come. San Dieguito needs trustees who can set aside distracting allegiances, clearing the way for sound decisions made purely on the basis of what’s best for students.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: