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Will charter school politics — and money — influence the local Santa Clara County school board race?

Charter organizations give big money to Grace Mah, while labor and teachers unions support Melissa Baten Caswell

Melissa Baten Caswell, left, and Grace Mah, right, are running to represent Trustee Area 1 on the Santa Clara County Board of Education this fall. Courtesy photos.

With Election Day less than three weeks away, outside money is pouring into the Santa Clara County Board of Education Area 1 race, with charter school proponents making large contributions to incumbent Grace Mah.

Charter school political action committees and representatives have contributed more than $200,000 to Mah's campaign in the last three weeks, many of them large donations that came in after the most recent reporting period. The Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee (PAC) has made two large donations: $75,000 on Sept. 28 and $105,000 on Oct. 13, according to campaign finance reports. Other contributions came from Santa Clara Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools ($5,000) and Champions for Education PAC ($20,000) as well as members of the boards of directors of Rocketship Public Schools, ACE Charter School and Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. Mah's campaign raised about $80,000 through Sept. 19, bringing her current reported total to about $290,000.

Melissa Baten Caswell — a current Palo Alto school board member who's running against Mah, who is also a Palo Alto resident — has raised nearly $50,000 from donors who have publicly opposed or criticized Bullis Charter School. Bullis' charter renewal will come to the board in 2022. Caswell's campaign this month also received about $30,400 in two separate donations from the East Side Teachers Association Political Action Committee, according to campaign finance reports filed after the most recent reporting period. Baten Caswell's campaign raised about $140,000 as of Sept. 19, bringing her current reported total to about $170,400.

The fundraising in this race underscores charter-driven political fissures on the current county board, though both candidates resist being labeled as pro- or anti-charter. The county board, which currently oversees 21 charter schools, is responsible for authorizing new charter schools and renewing existing ones.

Mah characterized the sizable donations to her campaign as a response to the "financial arms race" prompted by Baten Caswell, who raised nearly $90,000 early in the campaign, including from labor unions and teachers unions (both of which are perceived as anti-charter) and Bullis critics.

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Mah said she hasn't had discussions with the charter school organizations herself but sees their support for her campaign as driven by a "threat of the anti-charter school sentiment." She said she's been shocked by the amount of money coming into both her own and Baten Caswell's campaign and thinks there should be limits on fundraising. In her last three campaigns for this seat, she said the most she ever raised was $10,000. In her 2016 campaign, she raised less than $4,000, according to campaign finance reports.

In a statement, Gregory McGinity, executive director of the California Charter School Association (CCSA) Advocates, which operates the Charter Public Schools PAC, said that the organization backs Mah because of her "proven track record of supporting all students."

"Experience and stability are especially important during these uncertain times," he wrote. "Her continued commitment to expanding preschool opportunities, supporting teachers and educational equity has proven to us that she is a much-needed voice on the board."

The charter school political action committees that support Mah have also made large donations to another Santa Clara County school board member's reelection campaign: Joseph Di Salvo, who represents Area 4, the majority portion of San Jose Unified, a portion of Oak Grove and corresponding portion of East Side Union High school districts. Meanwhile, Di Salvo's opponent, Ketzal Gomez, has received campaign contributions from labor unions and Bullis opponents (including Sangeeth Peruri, a former Los Altos school board member and Baten Caswell's campaign chair).

In an interview, Peruri said Baten Caswell's team set a fundraising goal early on of $100,000 to $200,000, estimating they would have to spend about $1 to $2 to reach each of the approximately 130,000 voters in Area 1. He defended their campaign fundraising as locally based rather than from "out of town special interests." Baten Caswell has been endorsed by 27 of 30 local school board trustees and all six teachers unions in the Area 1 districts.

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Steve Brown, a Los Altos resident and member of a group called "Unintended Consequences" that was critical of Bullis, gave $10,000 to Baten Caswell's campaign. In an interview, he said he's convinced that Baten Caswell is better aligned than Mah with his priorities of collaboration, accountability and transparency.

Brown said he's not against charter schools — in fact, he has donated to some — but is concerned that Bullis is not serving disadvantaged students well and needs to be held accountable.

"They don't reflect the ethnicity and race of our community, which is part of the intent of the Charter (Schools) Act, and they don't service the disadvantaged kids," Brown said. "With that in mind, I think the role of the county as the chartering organization should help their board understand their obligation to do that.

"If a charter they've chartered is not doing a good job," he said of the county board, "they need to rope them in."

Peruri said Baten Caswell has publicly stated she has no intention of shutting down Bullis Charter School but that she sees a need for greater oversight, which resonates with him and other vocal critics of the charter school.

"Shutting down BCS does no one any favors. But one thing that she would like to see is better oversight and terms and changes in practices in the renewal that would address and change the demographics," he said.

Three incumbents on the county school board are up for reelection on Nov. 3. Mah noted that the county school board president, Claudia Rossi, who's been described as a charter opponent, has endorsed three other charter opponents running against her board colleagues.

Fundraising on both sides of the Area 1 school board race is outsized compared to other local county school board races. In the San Mateo County Board of Education race, incumbent Rod Hsiao has raised about $61,500 and challenger Chelsea Bonini close to $21,000, according to campaign finance documents.

Mah, a Republican, also drew criticism after sending out a mailer with a complimentary quote from Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), who's endorsed fellow Democrat Baten Caswell, along with the image of a kicking donkey that looks like the Democratic Party's logo. In a press release, the Santa Clara County Democratic Party blasted Mah for the "misleading" mailer and the contributions she's received from "out-of-town PACs."

Baten Caswell said: "I'm honored to have dozens of local teachers, parents, and community members, along with the Democratic Party, supporting my campaign."

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Will charter school politics — and money — influence the local Santa Clara County school board race?

Charter organizations give big money to Grace Mah, while labor and teachers unions support Melissa Baten Caswell

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Oct 19, 2020, 10:01 am

With Election Day less than three weeks away, outside money is pouring into the Santa Clara County Board of Education Area 1 race, with charter school proponents making large contributions to incumbent Grace Mah.

Charter school political action committees and representatives have contributed more than $200,000 to Mah's campaign in the last three weeks, many of them large donations that came in after the most recent reporting period. The Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee (PAC) has made two large donations: $75,000 on Sept. 28 and $105,000 on Oct. 13, according to campaign finance reports. Other contributions came from Santa Clara Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools ($5,000) and Champions for Education PAC ($20,000) as well as members of the boards of directors of Rocketship Public Schools, ACE Charter School and Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. Mah's campaign raised about $80,000 through Sept. 19, bringing her current reported total to about $290,000.

Melissa Baten Caswell — a current Palo Alto school board member who's running against Mah, who is also a Palo Alto resident — has raised nearly $50,000 from donors who have publicly opposed or criticized Bullis Charter School. Bullis' charter renewal will come to the board in 2022. Caswell's campaign this month also received about $30,400 in two separate donations from the East Side Teachers Association Political Action Committee, according to campaign finance reports filed after the most recent reporting period. Baten Caswell's campaign raised about $140,000 as of Sept. 19, bringing her current reported total to about $170,400.

The fundraising in this race underscores charter-driven political fissures on the current county board, though both candidates resist being labeled as pro- or anti-charter. The county board, which currently oversees 21 charter schools, is responsible for authorizing new charter schools and renewing existing ones.

Mah characterized the sizable donations to her campaign as a response to the "financial arms race" prompted by Baten Caswell, who raised nearly $90,000 early in the campaign, including from labor unions and teachers unions (both of which are perceived as anti-charter) and Bullis critics.

Mah said she hasn't had discussions with the charter school organizations herself but sees their support for her campaign as driven by a "threat of the anti-charter school sentiment." She said she's been shocked by the amount of money coming into both her own and Baten Caswell's campaign and thinks there should be limits on fundraising. In her last three campaigns for this seat, she said the most she ever raised was $10,000. In her 2016 campaign, she raised less than $4,000, according to campaign finance reports.

In a statement, Gregory McGinity, executive director of the California Charter School Association (CCSA) Advocates, which operates the Charter Public Schools PAC, said that the organization backs Mah because of her "proven track record of supporting all students."

"Experience and stability are especially important during these uncertain times," he wrote. "Her continued commitment to expanding preschool opportunities, supporting teachers and educational equity has proven to us that she is a much-needed voice on the board."

The charter school political action committees that support Mah have also made large donations to another Santa Clara County school board member's reelection campaign: Joseph Di Salvo, who represents Area 4, the majority portion of San Jose Unified, a portion of Oak Grove and corresponding portion of East Side Union High school districts. Meanwhile, Di Salvo's opponent, Ketzal Gomez, has received campaign contributions from labor unions and Bullis opponents (including Sangeeth Peruri, a former Los Altos school board member and Baten Caswell's campaign chair).

In an interview, Peruri said Baten Caswell's team set a fundraising goal early on of $100,000 to $200,000, estimating they would have to spend about $1 to $2 to reach each of the approximately 130,000 voters in Area 1. He defended their campaign fundraising as locally based rather than from "out of town special interests." Baten Caswell has been endorsed by 27 of 30 local school board trustees and all six teachers unions in the Area 1 districts.

Steve Brown, a Los Altos resident and member of a group called "Unintended Consequences" that was critical of Bullis, gave $10,000 to Baten Caswell's campaign. In an interview, he said he's convinced that Baten Caswell is better aligned than Mah with his priorities of collaboration, accountability and transparency.

Brown said he's not against charter schools — in fact, he has donated to some — but is concerned that Bullis is not serving disadvantaged students well and needs to be held accountable.

"They don't reflect the ethnicity and race of our community, which is part of the intent of the Charter (Schools) Act, and they don't service the disadvantaged kids," Brown said. "With that in mind, I think the role of the county as the chartering organization should help their board understand their obligation to do that.

"If a charter they've chartered is not doing a good job," he said of the county board, "they need to rope them in."

Peruri said Baten Caswell has publicly stated she has no intention of shutting down Bullis Charter School but that she sees a need for greater oversight, which resonates with him and other vocal critics of the charter school.

"Shutting down BCS does no one any favors. But one thing that she would like to see is better oversight and terms and changes in practices in the renewal that would address and change the demographics," he said.

Three incumbents on the county school board are up for reelection on Nov. 3. Mah noted that the county school board president, Claudia Rossi, who's been described as a charter opponent, has endorsed three other charter opponents running against her board colleagues.

Fundraising on both sides of the Area 1 school board race is outsized compared to other local county school board races. In the San Mateo County Board of Education race, incumbent Rod Hsiao has raised about $61,500 and challenger Chelsea Bonini close to $21,000, according to campaign finance documents.

Mah, a Republican, also drew criticism after sending out a mailer with a complimentary quote from Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), who's endorsed fellow Democrat Baten Caswell, along with the image of a kicking donkey that looks like the Democratic Party's logo. In a press release, the Santa Clara County Democratic Party blasted Mah for the "misleading" mailer and the contributions she's received from "out-of-town PACs."

Baten Caswell said: "I'm honored to have dozens of local teachers, parents, and community members, along with the Democratic Party, supporting my campaign."

Comments

Melissa Baten Caswell for Santa Clara Co Board of Education
Registered user
another community
on Oct 19, 2020 at 2:42 pm
Melissa Baten Caswell for Santa Clara Co Board of Education, another community
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 2:42 pm
10 people like this

Melissa Baten Caswell will serve all of the students in the county and is backed by 27 out of 30 school board members in our trustee area. Incumbent Mah has been in the position for over a decade and has not reached out to local school board members to see what the county can do for them. Baten Caswell has a plan to help local school districts deal with the operational challenges and huge costs of coronavirus — let’s get positive change for our kids!! Mah’s charter industry backing (and everybody knew they would bring lots of money because they give millions of $ to candidates for statewide races of governor and superintendent of instruction) biases her toward charters, the area where she has spent her time and energy as trustee. Baten Caswell’s support by teachers and neighborhood school parents who care about public instruction of their kids is in no way equivalent to the special interest of the charter industry backing Mah. Teachers and families are what true public education is all about. Vote Baten Caswell!!


LongResident
Registered user
another community
on Oct 19, 2020 at 5:00 pm
LongResident, another community
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 5:00 pm
9 people like this

I think it is noteworthy that just 4 individuals in Los Altos have contributed $42,500 to Melissa's campaign. That is an outsize contribution for a few rich Los Altos residents to make. It's interesting that in Palo Alto where Melissa was on the board for 12 years during a period with more than one scandal in the district, there aren't former board members willing to give $10K. When you look at all of Melissa's contributions there are way more than $50K, i.e. more than $60K) coming from just a view rabidly anti-BCS people in Los Altos. Contributions of $5K and $2K add up fast. Still, it's a lot of money coming from just a few wealthy people in the city of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

As for the imbalance, I think it's noteworthy that Melissa' campaign manager has chosen to spend over $100K on a campaign consultant. Grace Mah seems to be running her own campaign. I find the Melissa public communications to be trite and unbelievable. She has kids in ads on Youtube. I have a feeling that this is not really a very good strategy in this race. I think the campaign manager may have outsmarted himself by paying $100K for expert ad placement advice. So perhaps the real store is not that Grace has more funds, but that Melissa's campaign is wasting what they have on silly things..... In any event, the campaign not speaking from the heart is Melissa's. Grace's add all have substance. So far they have not mentioned the many negative things that can be said about Melissa. Will that continue?


LongResident
Registered user
another community
on Oct 19, 2020 at 5:22 pm
LongResident, another community
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 5:22 pm
9 people like this

The way I see it is that in a largely negative whisper campaign against a dedicated public servant, Grace Mah, a group of privileged elite local residents sought to unjustly condemn her despite her excellent work They raised $90K over 2 months when the contributions first had to be reported on July 1, with most of the money coming from people giving $2K or more. Subsequent filing show that this continued with another $50K being raised after July 1 and reported Sept 19th. Seeing what had happened and how it was done, a group of others sought to even the scale, and they did so. These donations were immediately reported and available for all to see, owing to the extra time it took for them to materialize, unlike the ones made before July 1. The charter school interests are only contributing because of these attacks on Grace Mah owing to her non-discrimination against Charter school petitions that come before the SCCOOE. They don't want her to suffer because of the political climate fostered by the teacher unions.

There are 65 charter schools in Santa Clara county and they have all been approved according to law. They all operate with less or certainly no more funding per students, compared to the entrenched set of local school districts. Most of these districts that are operating traditional schools have a terrible achievement gap between the low Socio Economic Status students and the others. The local school district bureaucracies resent the better job done by the charter schools, but they really should not. That's why these bogus attacks on Grace Mah are so reprehensible.

As for BCS, it attracts 25% of the elementary school students in the LASD area. It uses only 15% of the total public funding for LASD. BCS is HELPING the funding for the traditional schools in LASD! The 75% of students have 85% of the funding for the traditional schools, as well as really fancy 10 acre school sites with huge playgrounds. BCS has shacks in a corner of each junior high.


Here's your answer
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on Oct 19, 2020 at 7:52 pm
Here's your answer, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 7:52 pm
3 people like this

If your question is, "Will charter school politics — and money — influence the local Santa Clara County school board race?"

The answer is Yes!

The incumbent is owned by wealthy charter interests, and the challenger is backed by opponents of the incumbent, largely due to her longtime alignment with charter interest.

So the answer is a resounding Yes!


Barry Austin
Registered user
The Crossings
on Oct 19, 2020 at 9:21 pm
Barry Austin, The Crossings
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 9:21 pm
9 people like this

We are witnessing a massive power play by the anti-charter Establishment. The dollars and political levers in play are astronomical for what has until now been a smallish local race.

Why would the Establishment do this? Why spend all this money and mobilize a political army and attack with a smear and disinformation campaign unless it's worth it to them? What would they get out of this?

Sadly that's how important killing charters is to the education Establishment. This is a perversion of progressivism, using the power of The Man to protect what is now the Establishment.


Jim Burnham
Registered user
another community
on Oct 19, 2020 at 9:43 pm
Jim Burnham, another community
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 9:43 pm
9 people like this

Did anyone notice that the article is filled with quotes from anti-charter people without any fact checking? Steve Brown - a fierce charter opponent - claims BCS is "not serving" disadvantaged communities despite the fact that BCS admission is determined by lottery and is open to everyone. Shouldn't that statement have been checked? And they also quote Sangeeth Peruri's claim that Melissa has "no intention of shutting down BCS" when he and most of her supporters have spent years trying to shut down BCS. Why not investigate that statement?
The author also uses misleading statements that favor Melissa (i.e. teacher's unions are "perceived" as being anti-charter, when they have spent tens of millions of dollars electing anti-charter politicians, and Grace's flyer was "misleading" without explaining the circumstances). Those "special interest" pro-charter people referred to derisively include people like me that have kids in BCS and have seen up-close the fantastic job they do. The choice in this election couldn't be any clearer: the interests of our kids vs. the interests of the education establishment.


Yes of course
Registered user
Jackson Park
on Oct 19, 2020 at 11:15 pm
Yes of course, Jackson Park
Registered user
on Oct 19, 2020 at 11:15 pm
2 people like this

Yes of course, you can tell this race is a “massive power play by the anti-charter Establishment” because the pro-charter incumbent has double the budget of her challenger, thanks to her billionaire patrons


Let's Get All the Facts
Registered user
Castro City
on Oct 20, 2020 at 4:42 am
Let's Get All the Facts, Castro City
Registered user
on Oct 20, 2020 at 4:42 am
10 people like this

Grace Mah has been endorsed by the San Jose Mercury News.

From the San Jose Mercury News Editorial (Oct. 20, 2020):
"Mah has been been on the county board since 2007, representing an area that covers Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and parts of Sunnyvale. She is a strong advocate for early childhood programs and has a well-deserved reputation for being smart and hard-working. Voters shouldn't buy into the message that she is blindly pro-charter. Her 13-year track record shows she approves or rejects charter school applications based on merit. In fact, she opposed the controversial Bullis School charter renewal in 2013.
Her opponent, Melissa Baten Caswell, has served the maximum three terms on the Palo Alto Unified board. She has the backing of the California Teachers Association and has received five-figure donations from Los Altos board members who oppose charters. Caswell is bright and knowledgeable on the issues, but the CTA and anti-charter backers don't give that kind of money without expecting something in return. Mah is the better choice, given her proven record of evaluating charters on the strength of their applications."


SRB
Registered user
St. Francis Acres
on Oct 20, 2020 at 8:13 am
SRB, St. Francis Acres
Registered user
on Oct 20, 2020 at 8:13 am
2 people like this

To answer the article's headline, Yes, it's certainly the intent. That's also not new, Charter Schools lobbies have poured money in Santa Clara County Board of Education races for the past decade or so. It certainly has paid off for their industry.

Reading the comments it's quite the spin to see the out of town Charter School lobby Goliath painted as a David in the District 1 contest.


LongResident
Registered user
another community
on Oct 20, 2020 at 1:57 pm
LongResident, another community
Registered user
on Oct 20, 2020 at 1:57 pm
7 people like this

The industry of the public schools in California is huge, but shrinking simply do to population drop-off at the K-12 ages. The entrenched local school districts and the teachers there depend on this industry for their livelihood. Like the state's Prison Guard union, the CTA is a massive political influence in the state. Anything that a group of non profit Charter schools can do in the state is up against long odds of success.

What must be helping Charter Schools is just the fact that they have to do a better job. No one is "Assigned" to a particular charter school. Only those who WANT to attend a charter school do so. The offer underserved students a chance at a better education. The competition they cause helps improve the traditional schools. It's a win win. The CTA is nervous because of the population drop off, and the fact that kids are still interested in charter schools. There has been a shortage of capacity in the charter schools that mean many kids don't have a choice, but as the population drops off, more kids are able to find a space in a charter school. So that causes this agitation against charter schools.


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