A politically outspoken conservative bloc’s grip over the Orange County Board of Education will be tested in the June 7 election.
Three incumbents are competing against six challengers for seats on the OCBE, a board that has gained notoriety in recent years for its politics and its use of lawsuits and public forums to push its agenda.
The incumbents are Mari Barke, Lisa Sparks and Tim Shaw.
In the coastal Trustee Area 2, Barke, 59, a consultant, faces two challengers: Martha Fluor, 71, a former Newport-Mesa Unified school board member for 29 years, and Christopher R. Ganiere, 54, an architect.
In the northern Trustee Area Four, four candidates are seeking the seat. Shaw, 45, government affairs director for the Pacific West Association of Realtors, has served in the post since his election in 2020 and was reappointed last December after briefly being off the board. Due to a recent court ruling, he can’t currently call himself a board member. His three challengers are Paulette Chaffee, 63, an attorney and former teacher who holds a lifetime teaching certification, David M. Choi, 43, a certified public accountant, and Ellisa Kim, 42, a business owner.
And in southern Orange County Trustee Area Five, incumbent Sparks, 55, a Chapman University professor, has one opponent, Sherine Smith, 64, a former superintendent of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.
Unlike most other races, where the June election serves as the primary, these races are final for both the Orange County Board of Education and the Orange County Department of Education superintendent elections. (In the superintendent race, incumbent Al Mijares is challenged by Stefan Bean, a former superintendent of a public charter school chain in California.)
Educators, political observers and many others are closely watching the races, where some candidates’ campaign coffers are in the six figures and the California Charter Schools Association has so far poured $225,000 into incumbents’ war chests.
The current board has repeatedly drawn headlines – and scrutiny.
Since Barke, Sparks – and later Shaw – joined the OCBE, they have teamed up with long-time board member Ken Williams to form a conservative bloc that has held forums against the state’s law on sex education in secondary schools, California’s mandate on face masks and pandemic rules, and the controversial teaching concept of critical race theory, which addresses systemic racism.
The board majority also has also sought more control over the Department of Education, looking to have additional oversight and shift some of the authority long held by the elected superintendent to the elected board. That led the board majority to file two lawsuits against Mijares. One was settled by both parties last year and another, filed in 2019, concluded earlier this month when a judge ruled against the OCBE. The lawsuits have cost taxpayers in the millions.
The board has contracted its own attorneys, separate from the Orange County Department of Education, and filed several other lawsuits against Gov. Gavin Newsom and a county committee – responsible for deciding election maps – that rejected the OCBE’s preferred voting map.
The board’s spending on lawyers and its attempts to push a political agenda were key catalysts for several of the challengers to throw their hats in the ring.
“I’m running because it’s time to put students first, not politics or ideology,” wrote Fluor, a Barke opponent, in response to a questionnaire sent by the Register. “Squandering millions (of) taxpayer dollars on lawsuits over issues beyond the board’s authority needs to stop. We need to govern with civility, integrity, transparency and tolerance.”
Smith, who is challenging Sparks, said she too decided to run after seeing the board’s actions in recent years: “As a fiscal conservative, I want to put a stop to the reckless waste of millions of taxpayer funds for frivolous lawsuits. I want to support and champion our public schools and bring communities together to serve our kids.”
Chaffee, who as of this week had the biggest war chest, said that as a former teacher and former school speech therapist who continues to be involved on children-related boards, she “knows the challenges that teachers face.” She said she is running “to support what OCBE is set up to do.”
The incumbents, meanwhile, all said they are running to continue the work they have started, including an expansion of public charter schools in the county.
“As your OCBE Trustee, I have been fighting for parental rights and will continue to be sure families are informed about curricular and health decisions affecting students and their learning outcomes,” Sparks wrote in a Register questionnaire. She said she has fought to “reopen schools safely and responsibly; protect parents’ rights and educational choices, including expanding the number of charter schools.”
Shaw also said he wants to “continue the good work we are doing in providing educational choice to the residents of Orange County.” And Barke said she wants “to continue to put students first” and “to make sure children are not trapped by their ZIP code” and have a choice of where they go to school.
The five-member elected Board of Education has limited duties and does not run the Orange County Department of Education. Its duties include approving the department’s final budget and considering appeals from students who want to move from one district to another but are denied by their home district. The board also has a say in what charter schools can open in Orange County. It is the appellate board for prospective charter schools denied approval by their home districts.
In response to a questionnaire sent by the Register, candidates offered varying views on numerous topics, including the board lawsuits, charter schools, ethnic studies as a graduation requirement and pandemic-related mandates affecting schools. Kim did not reply to the questionnaire.
The incumbents, not surprisingly, defended their hiring of lawyers and the various lawsuits they have filed against the governor, the county and state superintendents and others.
“The OCBE retained their own attorney because during recent litigation, Judge Crandall advised us that we would be crazy to use the attorney unilaterally hired by the superintendent, who was obviously biased against us,” Barke said.
Orange County Superior Court Judge James Crandall presided over a lawsuit filed by the board against Mijares over the hiring of an attorney. That lawsuit was settled last year. It cost taxpayers $3.2 million.
Ganiere said he supported the lawsuits against the superintendent and against the governor but does not support legal action against a county committee that didn’t rubberstamp the OCBE’s preferred voting maps. Choi did not answer the questions about the lawsuits. Chaffee, Fluor and Smith called them a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“This wasteful practice must stop,” Chaffee wrote.
On the issue of charter schools, the incumbents and Ganiere said they are strong supporters.
No candidate came out against the publicly funded but independently run charters, but a few of them raised issues.
Smith said she has “grave concerns” about the amount of money charter schools have given to the current board majority. “ …the Board approves all charters, regardless of quality,” Smith wrote.
Chaffee said they are not adequately regulated and said that the board has at times approved charter schools without properly addressing Orange County Department of Education staff members’ concerns.
Fluor said she supports “well-managed public charter schools.”
Most candidates – Barke, Ganiere, Choi, Shaw and Sparks – do not support California’s plan to mandate ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement. Chaffee and Smith support it. Fluor did not answer the question.
The candidates split on a question about whether they support COVID-19 vaccines, testing and other state mandates. Barke, Ganiere, Sparks and Shaw want to see no mandates. Chaffee, Choi, Fluor and Smith want to see limited mandates.
Some of the challengers have run for office before.
Ganiere unsuccessfully sought in 2020 a spot on the Municipal Water District of Orange County.
Chaffee ran unsuccessfully against Shaw in 2020 for the Orange County Board of Education and in 2018 for a spot on the Fullerton City Council. During the 2018 campaign, she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of petty theft for stealing election signs critical of her. The charges were dismissed in 2019 after she completed community service. Chaffee called it a mistake she has learned from. “It does not define who I am as a person,” she said.
Candidates in two of the areas are running in recently redrawn districts following the 2020 U.S. Census.
Trustee Area 2, where Barke, Fluor and Ganiere are competing, now encompasses Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Los Alamitos, Rossmoor, Seal Beach and portions of Newport Beach and Irvine.
Trustee Area 5, where Sparks is challenged by Smith, covers south Orange County: Aliso Viejo, Coto de Caza, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and parts of Newport Beach and Lake Forest.
But in Trustee Area 4, Shaw, Chaffee, Choi and Kim are running in an area that covers the old boundaries, representing Buena Park, Fullerton, La Habra, Placentia and portions of Anaheim, because the term seeks to complete a four-year term that was temporarily vacated last year. Orange County’s new Registrar of Voters Bob Page said “the old map stays in effect” through the 2020-2024 term.
Shaw was originally elected in 2020 for a four-year term, but due to threatened litigation over a potential conflict of interest, he stepped down late last year before getting appointed on a 3-1 vote a month later. Since then, an Orange County Superior Court judge temporarily barred him from the Board of Education in a lawsuit that is pending. (A La Habra resident sued Shaw saying he was illegally appointed to the board.)
Charter School, other monies
Charter schools are a big issue with many educators and parents – and with the Orange County Board of Education.
They are touted by some as a welcomed alternative that can provide flexibility and innovative teaching methods, independent from home school district structures. But many charter schools are criticized by others as lacking in accountability and transparency, and in the worst cases, not providing an adequate education.
The California Charter Schools Association political action committee is the largest contributor thus far in OCBE campaigns, giving each of the incumbents $75,000, with the latest contribution – $50,000 to each – reported Thursday, May 19, on the California Secretary of State’s website.
The tally from the charter schools’ PAC so far is considerably less than what the group spent last time around to help Barke, Shaw and Sparks win their seats: $245,706, $243,319 and $179,835, respectively, according to the state’s website.
Other big donors for the incumbents include Mark Bucher, co-founder of the California Policy Center, a libertarian think tank where Barke works part-time as a consultant and is the director of the center’s program to support local officials and potential candidates. Bucher has lent $25,000 to each of the incumbents, and on Thursday donated $20,000 per campaign to Barke, Shaw and Sparks.
The incumbents share other large donors. They each received $14,500 from the conservative Family Action PAC; $10,000 from businessman David Horowitz of the Horowitz Group plus $5,000 to $10,000 from his brother, Andrew Horowitz; $5,000 from Fieldstead and Company, which is affiliated with philanthropists Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, and $2,500 from a political action committee affiliated with the Orange County School for the Arts, OCSA. (In 2020, the OCBE accepted a request from OCSA to cut its ties to the Santa Ana Unified School District and work under the county’s umbrella, a move that Santa Ana Unified objected to.)
Barke’s other large donations include $10,000 from Dennis Troesh, owner of Quarry Capital LLC, $7,500 from Gregory Stapley of Craigtrust Reit, Inc. and $5,000 from IvyMax San Marino Corp., which provides online educational and college prep services, among others. As of the most recent campaign filings, she had raised more than $217,000.
Shaw’s other large donations also include $7,500 from Stapley, as well as $20,000 from the California Real Estate PAC. He’s raised more than $174,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Sparks’ donations include $1,000 from her husband, Chapman University President Daniele Struppa, and $500 from former Chapman University President Jim Doti. Larger donations include $2,500 from Larry T. Smith, president of MHI Real Company, who also donated to Barke and Shaw. Sparks has raised approximately $195,745.
Most of the challengers have much smaller campaign coffers, except for Chaffee.
In Trustee Area 4, Chaffee reported over $287,000, most of it loans to herself. The California Teachers Association gave her $4,000.
In Trustee Area 2, Fluor has raised more than $50,000. The largest donations included $8,000 from Huntington Beach Union High School District Board member Susan Henry, $5,000 from local Democrat activist Ronna Weltman, $5,000 from retired Judge Lynne Riddle, a watchdog of the OCBE, $5,000 from the California Teachers Association, and $4,000 from the Newport Mesa Federations of Teachers.
In Trustee Area 5, Smith has received more than $165,000 in contributions. They include $6,500 from Weltman, $5,000 from the California Teachers Association, and $3,750 from Riddle.
The other candidates did not report campaign contributions or expenses.
At least one other group has formed, this one against the election of Barke and Sparks, according to the California Secretary of State’s office. It’s raised $36,000, including $25,000 from Riddle, the retired judge who has served as a watchdog over the board in recent years.
Source: Orange County Register