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Conservative PAC Reform California is recruiting candidates for San Diego school board races

After two years of school closures, mask and vaccine requirements, and other hotly contested pandemic measures, voters may be closely scrutinizing school board races in the midterm elections this year.

A conservative political action committee, Reform California, is taking advantage of that, recruiting candidates to run for school boards throughout San Diego County.

Reform California founder and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio said the organization aims to train and support candidates with a goal of slating a candidate for every school board seat on the ballot.

“The school boards don’t respect parents,” DeMaio said. “Parents are the clients or customers of schools … The parent’s voice is so important. Unfortunately, we have school board members who, because they are owned and operated by these special interests, have shut parents out of the discussion. The only way to get those changes is to completely shake up leadership in each of the school districts.”

DeMaio said Reform California is vetting candidates, and identified two that the group plans to endorse: charter school founder Becca Williams, 31, who plans to run for Trustee District C, an open seat on the San Diego Unified board, and private school teacher Kyle Hermann, 24, who is challenging incumbent Charda Bell-Fontenot, trustee of District 3 of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District.

“What I bring to the table is being someone who will give an ear to the parents, teachers and students,” said Hermann, a teacher at Foothills Christian High and a former student of La Mesa-Spring Valley schools.

Hermann’s opponent, Bell-Fontenot, was the object of an unsuccessful recall effort led by DeMaio last year, after she cast a lone dissenting vote against reopening schools in February. Bell-Fontenot, who is Black, likened forcing teachers and students to return to in-person classes during a pandemic to White supremacy and slavery.

The recall proposal never went to voters because recall proponents did not submit petitions by the September deadline.

Bell-Fontenot could not be reached for comment on the challenge to her seat.

Williams, a mother of two who co-founded Valor Charter Schools, a network of three schools in Austin and Kyle, Texas, said she decided to run for San Diego Unified after hearing from other parents who were pulling their children out of public schools. Despite her role in charter schools, she said she was alarmed by those public school withdrawals.

“I believe that my family and every family should have a tuition-free public school as an option they can trust,” Williams said.

San Diego Unified Trustee Michael McQuary, who currently represents District C, said he does not plan to run for re-election.

DeMaio founded Reform California in 2003 to fight state taxes and mandates. The political action committee raised $1.2 million in 2021 and spent about $600,000, according to the California Secretary of State.

DeMaio said his goal in school board races is to increase parental involvement, improve education quality and fight what he referred to as critical race theory, a heated topic in school politics.

Critical race theory is a college-level academic framework that examines systemic racism in institutions such as housing markets and criminal justice systems. Republican activists have claimed it is being taught in K-12 schools and described it as socialist concept that vilifies White people.

On its website, Reform California describes critical race theory as a “toxic and divisive curriculum … that is being used to advance extreme political agendas.”

John Rogers, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, co-authored a study on how fights over critical race theory have played out in school district politics. The study concluded that conservative politicians have used a “caricatured” version of the theory to oppose education about race and diversity and to mobilize their political base.

“Critics sought to restrict or ‘ban’ curriculum, lessons, professional development, and district equity and diversity efforts addressing a broad but often loosely defined set of ideas about race, racism, diversity, and inclusion,” the authors wrote.

Interest in local school elections is often cyclical and tied to national trends, Rogers said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic and families’ struggles with remote learning has triggered a resurgence in school board politics.

“All of those reflect a general sense of frustration that many have felt over the past couple years, as the pandemic has made life more difficult, particularly for parents with young children,” Rogers said. “What has happened oftentimes in different parts of the county is that frustration has been connected to these national or regional efforts to draw out or activate a conservative or Republican base.”

DeMaio argued that some local schools’ approach to racial history and ethnic studies “is a skewed version of history to convince kids that America continues to be racist.”

Lessons on racism and discrimination can be appropriate, but shouldn’t present the United States as fundamentally oppressive or exclude parents from decisions about the curricula, he said.

“All of these things we can put on the table and evaluate and say if we want to present this, we can present this in a fair and balanced way,” he said. “That’s not what they’re talking about.”

Both Hermann and Williams said said they think it’s possible to address topics of race and discrimination fairly and candidly.

“I would want to avoid teaching students ideologies that cause them to dislike each other, that cause divisions,” Hermann said. “Jim Crow, internment, they need to be looked at honestly. I think it’s very easy to teach those and to see where people were mistreated and how to avoid doing that as a country, and the mistakes we made and bad decisions we made, without glossing over those in any way.”

Williams said she supports teaching the history of racial discrimination but history curricula should not focus solely on ethnic or racial division.

“Nothing is off limits,” Williams said. “America has its warts, chief among them the history of slavery and treatment of Native Americans. The thing I would avoid is an interpretation of all history through the lens of racial identity, which I think the concern is.”

Both said their top priorities include addressing learning loss that students sustained during remote learning and pandemic disruption.

For instance, San Diego Unified data showed students’ grades, attendance and standardized test scores dropped significantly while they were in online learning. Many students of color, English learners and students with disabilities showed the steepest drops.

“The very first step is assessment,” Williams said. “It’s going to be painful. Some of these figures are not going to be fun to look at. We have to look at how these kids have fallen behind before we can address it, and (San Diego Unified has) not done that.”

Both candidates also questioned school policies mandating masks and vaccinations. Hermann said he believed those decisions should be left to parents instead of school administrators.

Williams said she believes vaccinations are crucial but is concerned that vaccine mandates are hardening resistance to them, and she is not convinced that masks are helpful.

“Kids are really frustrated, parents are frustrated and I think you’re seeing sweeping changes right now,” she said.

DeMaio said Reform California will offer training and mentorship to its candidates and possibly organize them in slates for individual districts. It may also provide financial support for campaigns, but that would be decided on an individual basis, according to “the seats that are most winnable, the candidates that are working the hardest,” he said.

He acknowledged that candidates he supports will have to rely more on their own efforts than a big campaign war chest.

“We’re going to be outspent overwhelmingly by the special interests, so it is going to be shoestring and bubble gum,” DeMaio said.



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