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Election 2022: Incumbents lead Orange County Board of Education, superintendent races

A victory appears likely for the conservative incumbents on the Orange County Board of Education as well as for Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares.

Trustees Mari Barke, Tim Shaw, and Lisa Sparks are well in front of their leading opponents in the June 7 election, according to the latest voter tallies released Wednesday evening by the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Mijares is also ahead of his challenger, Stefan Bean, although the gap between the two had narrowed since initial Election Day counts.

By Wednesday evening, more than 241,000 ballots have yet to be processed, according to figures from the county registrar.

The trustees have already declared victory; Mijares did not.

“It is premature to make any assumptions on who will win the race for county superintendent of schools and the county board of education,” Mijares said Wednesday.

However, if the results, as they are now, hold and Mijares and the OCBE incumbents pull off their reelection bids, what would that mean?

“More of the same,” said Fred Smoller, a Chapman University associate professor of political science.

“They’re going to be emboldened to take stands on positions that get national attention and contribute to Orange County’s retrograde political reputation,” Smoller said of the incumbent board members. “And they’ll continue to launch lawsuits and have continued tension with the superintendent.”

Most of the five elected trustees on the board have used their positions to push a conservative agenda and file lawsuits against Mijares, Gov. Gavin Newsom, and California Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond. Part of the board majority’s goal has been to have a greater control over the Orange County Department of Education, which is run by Mijares.

In recent years, board members also have held forums on controversial issues like pandemic-related statewide mandates in schools and the teaching of critical race theory, a college-level curriculum regarding systemic racism in the U.S. that some believe is being taught in K-12 education with a racist bent.

The winners see their “landslide victories,” as Shaw described them, as validating “our positions on educational choice and parental rights.”

Sparks, a trustee since 2018, agreed.

“Our success in crushing our opponents shows that dedicated parents and teachers know we are fighting for their rights to keep schools safe, open, and functioning (and) hold the system accountable by highlighting important issues, including budget and curricular transparency, and public school choice for families so they are tied to their zip code,” Sparks said in a text message Wednesday.

Barke said: “We always put the kids first and believe parents make the best decisions for their kids.”

Critics say the board has wasted millions of dollars in lawsuits, irresponsibly approved certain charter schools already rejected by home school districts over standards requirements, and promoted anti-public school agendas.

The board majority has been vocal about its support for public charter schools and received $75,000 each this year in contributions from the California Charter Schools Association.

Sherine Smith, a former Laguna Beach Unified School District superintendent who ran against Sparks in Trustee Area 5, said Wednesday: “I stood against an incumbent with a huge war chest … funded by special interest money.”

Most leading board candidates spent upward of $200,000 in their campaigns.

Two opponents, Smith and Martha Fluor, who ran against Barke in Trustee Area 2, said they expect to see a newly reelected combative board pushing its agenda.

“Unfortunately, we won’t see any changes,” Smith said. “We will see more needless lawsuits, more millions of our education tax dollars squandered, and more manufactured crises designed to mislead the public and undermine our local school districts.”

Fluor, a former Newport-Mesa Unified trustee for 29 years, said the board “will continue to be governed by political conservative ideology that’s not based in science” with an “escalation of lawsuits over times and roles and responsibilities that the board doesn’t have any control over.”

However, Shaw — who had a commanding lead over his opponents, including Paulette Chaffee, in the Trustee Area 4 race — said he hoped there would not be any need for additional lawsuits. And Barke said: “It is in the best interest of everyone that the trustees and superintendent work collaboratively.”

Mijares agreed.

“We must remember that is important to us, where possible, to lay aside our political differences and find common ground in order to more effectively serve our students and their families, as well as the staff and faculty who serve them,” Mijares said.

The Orange County Department of Education offers support and oversees the budgets of the county’s 28 school districts. Board members have several responsibilities, including approving inter-district student transfer requests on appeal, but they do not directly have a say on how individual school districts are run.

Observers said incumbents benefited by the low voter turnout in this election, well-funded campaigns, and the very title of “board member.”

“The board members had both incumbency and outrageous funding,” said Therese Sorey, chair of a group called “Supporters of Public Education – OC,” which formed in the past year to support local school boards facing backlash because of face masks and other issues.

“The power of incumbents,” is how Smoller put it.

“Often times, people will vote just because they recognize a name,” he said. “But having said, negative stories about the school board have been out there, and voters had an opportunity to choose a different direction. And they did not.”

Unlike other races held Tuesday, the OCBE and the superintendent races are final once results are certified. Whoever wins the most votes in each race wins the election outright.

The next ballot count update from the county registrar is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday.

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