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Frustration spurs California parents to run for school boards

Taylor Kayatta (left) and parent-teacher Vanessa Cudabac (right) stand in front of a house during a door-to-door campaign.
Rahul Lal
/
CalMatters
Taylor Kayatta (left) and parent-teacher Vanessa Cudabac (right) during a door-to-door campaign strategy on Aug. 13, 2022. Kayatta is running for Sacramento City Unified School District Board Area 6.

Across California, parents’ pandemic-era frustrations over everything from COVID school closures and safety protocols to the power of teachers’ unions are driving them to run for school boards.

Some are motivated by national controversies, such as critical race theory and LGBTQ+ education. Others want to make sure the record amount of money pouring into California schools benefits students directly. According to the California School Boards Association, about half of the approximately 5,000 school board seats in the state are up for election this year, but there’s no official count of how many parents are running for these offices that have drawn so much ire during the pandemic.

“It’s clear that we’re really investing in our public schools,” said Taylor Kayatta, a parent and school board candidate in Sacramento. “Whatever money we’re making this year should be spent on this year’s students. I don’t like the idea of putting money away just to put it away.”

Kayatta said he wants to streamline the clunky bureaucracy at Sacramento City Unified, which he and his family experienced first-hand. As he goes door-to-door to speak to voters, he starts the conversation with the story of his son and the struggle to get him a speech therapist through the district.

“There was a year or two where every day I’d wake up and say, ‘Is this the day when we put our house on the market and move to Folsom?’” he said. “Because if I couldn’t get my son the services he needed, there was only so much I could push.”

The 37-year-old attorney is seeking public office for the first time. Kayatta’s campaign for school board is a throwback to pre-pandemic times: more transparency, better communication and fiscal responsibility.

The local teachers union at Sacramento City Unified endorsed him, but Kayatta knows the endorsement might be a liability. Antagonism towards teachers unions fueled much of the parent activism during the pandemic.

“People might say that I’m a lackey,” he said. “But I’ve told the union that I’m not going to silence myself.”

In other parts of the state, parents who believed their personal liberties were violated by mask and vaccine mandates and sex education curricula found allies among school choice advocates and longtime opponents of teachers unions. The state Republican party has been tapping into this “parental rights” platform to support candidates it believes are aligned with its agenda.

Still, some school boards are struggling to find viable candidates, in some cases leaving candidates some consider extremists, like Dennis Delisle in Morgan Hill, to run unopposed. In Sacramento County. Jeffrey Perrine, who last year told the Sacramento Bee that he was a member of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys, is running for the board of the San Juan Unified School District.

Kayatta said he’s more focused on making sure his district spends its money on teachers, avoids future labor disputes and attracts more families to its schools. He said Sacramento City Unified has been insulated from the national controversies that have plagued other districts during the pandemic.

“In urban districts, those aren’t huge issues,” Kayatta said. “I think it’s something of a blue bubble maybe.” 

But even in San Diego, school board candidates struggled to see eye-to-eye with voters who seemed to only want to talk about sex education and critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how race is a construct of society and its laws.

“I told them parents always had control, that they could always opt out and that there were no critical race theory-based classes,” said Lily Higman, who ran in the June primary for San Diego Unified’s school board and lost. “But they were pushing these issues so hard.”

Higman’s platform included hiring more counselors and addressing chronic absenteeism. But voters’ obsession with national education controversies consumed the conversation, she said.

“I didn’t let them shape my platform, and that was probably to my detriment,” Higman said. “There’s such a big group of kids that have fallen behind, and while voters agree with that, they can’t get off critical race theory and sex ed.”

Vladimir Kogan, a political science professor at The Ohio State University who has written about local politics in California, said he’s skeptical that the most vocal voters are representative of a community. He said a large body of research shows that candidates often misperceive public opinion.

“That is always the danger of democracy,” he said. “It’s always hard to know what your constituents want because it’s so expensive to poll.” 

‘The year of the parent’

In Orange County, opposition to COVID safety protocols converged with advocacy for charter schools. The Orange County Board of Education drew public attention during the pandemic when it sued Gov. Gavin Newsom for mandating masks on campuses.

“They were saying, ‘I don’t want my kids vaccinated and I don’t want my kids masked,’” said former board president Mari Barke. “I think this is going to be the year of the parent.”

“There’s such a big group of kids that have fallen behind, and while voters agree with that, they can’t get off critical race theory and sex ed.”
Lily Higman, candidate in the June primary for San Diego Unified’s School Board

Barke was mentioned in a Salon article in March that pointed out that her husband, Jeff Barke, a physician who denied the severity of COVID-19, had founded a charter school that uses curriculum provided by a Christian college. Barke said she recused herself when the county board voted to approve the charter school. But her opponents remain critical.

In June, Barke was up for re-election, a race that was characterized as a referendum on her leadership. Barke defeated Martha Fluor, a former board member at Newport-Mesa Unified. Fluor ran with the teachers union endorsement and lost with 32% of the vote to Barke’s 59%. Barke said she wanted to run to protect the rights of “mama bears and papa bears.”

“I think just naturally, if you are uncomfortable with the mandates at your local district, then you might want more options, whether that’s to attend a virtual school or a charter school in the area,” Barke said. “When people feel their parental rights are being diminished to a degree, I think they want more options.”

Fluor, a former Republican who left the party after the Jan. 6 insurrection, said she ran to defeat what she called an extremist coalition subjecting schools to its political agenda. Fluor said the county board would often pray before meetings and opposed masks and vaccines. She said she and other like-minded candidates would have won if the election had been held in November, when more people are likely to vote.

“This race was really about political, ultra-conservative ideology versus what’s in the best interest of kids,” Fluor said. “The low voter turnout was our downfall.”

Political scientists have long suspected that the parents who show up at board meetings don’t necessarily represent the majority of their communities.

“It’s probably the case that the most vocal people on both sides are really the vocal minority, and they’re not speaking for most parents,” said Kogan, the political science professor. “That’s especially going to be true in urban districts serving the most disadvantaged students.”

One of the most vocal organizations has been Let Them Breathe, which started as a group of parents opposing mask mandates at school districts in Southern California. Sharon McKeeman, founder of the group, is now running for the Carlsbad Unified school board in northern San Diego County. In 2021, Let Them Breathe sued San Diego Unified, the second-largest district in the state, over its vaccine mandate.

“This race was really about political, ultra-conservative ideology versus what’s in the best interest of kids.”
Martha Fluor, candidate in the June primary for the Orange County Board of Education

McKeeman said she’s seeking office after witnessing teachers unions using students as a “bargaining chip” and delaying the reopening of schools after they were shut down in the early days of the pandemic. She said she’ll refuse to reinstate any mask mandates, even if teachers unions push for them.

“We will provide them with the resources so they can focus on teaching,” she said. “I’m just not going to bow to union interests.”

McKeeman said most teachers wanted to come back to in-person instruction sooner. She said she would be open to salary increases for teachers, considering how much money is going to public school districts. She wants to hire more art teachers in particular and reduce class sizes to raise math and reading test scores.

But she’s also calling for more parental oversight of what’s being taught in classrooms, especially when it comes to sex education. Parents who became politically active by opposing vaccine and mask mandates also seem to oppose lessons that “divide the family unit,” McKeeman said.

“Parents saw the government overreach and force their children into masks,” she said. “Those parents are looking into what else is going on in their children’s school and curriculum.”

In Sacramento, Kayatta said parents support masking and vaccines. He said districts need to remain vigilant and reinstate masking policies if the number of cases and hospitalizations rises again.

“A lot of school districts in the country are like, ‘That’s over now,’” Kayatta said. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think we need to keep an eye on it.” 

When it comes to local school governance, parent activists want transparency in how districts are handling the billions of dollars in federal relief money they are receiving.

“Before COVID, if you asked parents to name a member of their school board, I guarantee most would have come up with nothing,” said Megan Bacigalupi, the founder of CA Parent Power, a parent advocacy group established during the pandemic.

Bacigalupi said parents are most concerned about the quality of education and the mental health of students. “Risk of COVID infection is dead last,” she said.

“I don’t mean to keep talking about COVID, but there’s certainly money being spent on it,” she said. “Where parents want the money to be allocated is very different.”

Kayatta said he disagrees with large parts of the growing parent coalition, but he believes the new interest in politics among parents has made it easier to campaign.

“I think parents are paying a lot more attention now on either side,” Kayatta said. “A lot of that came from having your kids at home. That’s not going away any time soon.”

Joe is the K-12 education reporter for CalMatters. His stories use data to highlight inequities in California’s public schools. Before joining CalMatters in June 2021, he was the education reporter at KPBS, the public media station in San Diego. Previously, he covered the schools in the Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper in Palm Springs. He has a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine and a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School.