Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

School board politics aren’t known for their civility. But even by their own thankless standard, 2021 is shaping up to be a remarkable year for school board tension.

All across the county, conspicuous and strange dramas have been unfolding at some of San Diego’s smaller school districts. In Fallbrook Union Elementary, a board president was removed by her colleagues with only the most cryptic explanation. In San Dieguito, union officials hired a private detective to follow a school board member and another was forced out. In Vista Unified and La Mesa-Spring Valley, racist threats and language engulfed the work of two school boards. And in Fallbrook Union High, a board member faces recall.

Each of these standoffs traces its origin to bitter debates over reopening during the pandemic – but now that latent reopening energy seems to be spilling over into new school board conflicts.

“At least 51 local recall efforts [across the country] involving K-12 school boards have been initiated this year, targeting at least 130 elected members of those boards,” Axios reported. That’s more than twice as many as during a normal year, according to Ballotpedia. Five of those recall efforts – or nearly 10 percent – were started in San Diego County.

Take the Vista incident, for example. Vista Unified schools tried to open their doors to students relatively early in October 2020. But COVID-19 clusters forced schools and classrooms to continually open and close. Parents were frustrated. Board members and teachers were wary; and ultimately decided to walk back their reopening.

In February, a White parent taunted a Latina school board member by rolling his “r’s” heavily, while calling her out about the shutdown.

“Martha [Alvarado] I know that you don’t want to listen to parents unless they are named Rosarito Rodriguez but this endless shutdown is turning the achievement gaps between Whites and Hispanics into the Grand Canyon,” said the parent, Mads Noesgaard.

Noesgaard, who unsuccessfully ran for Vista school board in 2020 on a platform to reopen schools, refused to apologize.

The incident consumed the Vista Unified community for weeks. The school board and superintendent issued statements calling for civil discourse. Parents circulated a petition to recall Alvarado. A group called the BIPOC Educators Association of North County attacked the Vista chapter of the Parent Association, saying it had directed its members to harass and racially target Alvarado.

The Parent Association denied this, and eventually the BIPOC educators were forced to walk back their charge.

It’s worth considering the intersecting dynamics at work. The Parent Association, which has many Latino members, its White co-director told me, and Noesgaard were aligned in wanting schools open. Alvarado, the BIPOC Educators Association and the Vista teachers union said opening schools was unsafe.

A dust-up in La Mesa schools in March was similar. Chardá Bell-Fontenot, a board member aligned with unions on the issue of reopening, said that forcing students and teachers back into classrooms was akin to White supremacy. Bell-Fontenot’s fellow board members disavowed her comments. Conservative media picked up on the story, and people sent her death threats. Carl DeMaio helped in a push to recall her.

The La Mesa recall effort has until Sept. 21 to gain 12,990 signatures, according to the Registrar of voters. The Vista effort has died out.

The Vista and La Mesa episodes make it tempting to view school board tension as White angst over reopening clashing with reluctance among communities of color. But not all of the recent hostilities break so cleanly.

Agita in the San Dieguito school community is the result of its teachers union taking on a majority of its board members. The union is currently working to remove two board members – and has already successfully removed another. In that case, the mostly White teachers pushed out the district’s first-ever Black trustee, Ty Humes.

Union officials said the board didn’t invite enough community input when appointing Humes to a previously open seat. But Humes and the other board members catching the union’s ire all supported reopening. They say the union wants them out, because they vote independently of the union’s desires.

As a measure of just how far off the rails school board politics have gone, union officials hired a private detective tail one board member in an effort to prove she lived outside the district. That board member’s house is under contract to sell and she said she will resign her seat if the deal closes and she moves out of the district, but won’t be pushed out through intimidation.

Humes, who is running for the seat he had to vacate, is now also facing questions about his residency, according to the Times of San Diego.

The recent scuffles on San Diego school boards – not to mention the ongoing national and local controversies around critical race theory – show that America’s racial tension is becoming an animating factor in school board politics. But, at least when it comes to California, the politics of labor is an equally important driving factor.

One of the local school board controversies seems to transcend critical analysis. At Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, board members voted unanimously to remove their board president, Caron Leiber. But the board members won’t say anything about why they did it and have only obliquely referred to an internal complaint.

Leiber was previously the lone dissenting voice on Fallbrook’s board, but after the 2020 elections found herself president over a new board majority.

The other Fallbrook controversy – this time at the high school district – fits much more neatly into a political construct. A group of parents, led by Heidi Roderick, have started a recall effort to remove the board’s president, Diane Summers. They also want to get rid of other board members. The entire board, they say, is controlled by the teachers union and votes 5-0 on all issues of importance.

The parents’ grievances started when the board declined to open schools, even as other districts were going back to in-person learning.

Roderick herself has been engaged with the board for several years. But pent-up reopening energy is leading to higher engagement that she’s ever seen before.

“My hope is that the recall will work. But even if it doesn’t work, it’s already brought a new level of awareness to our community,” said Roderick. “We’re already looking for people in different zones to run for school board.”

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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