The pandemic rocked schools around the country. School closures opened school boards up to uncharacteristically divisive political battles. Parents packed board meetings over vaccine mandates, and debates on race and LGBTQ issues ramped up.
Coronado has seen all three become focal points in its school board meetings. And it’s those politics that are dominating elections for the Coronado Unified School District, which has long excelled in academics and fared better than some surrounding districts during the pandemic, as voters prepare to elect four new members to its five-person board.
The transformation of Coronado’s school board from the host of traditional battles over funding to a venue for thorny debates over personal values is a common story of post-pandemic board races.
‘The World Was Changing, and We Needed Coronado To Change As Well’
Like districts across the country, the pandemic brought escalated tensions at Coronado Unified’s school board. After George Floyd’s murder, former students, athletes and community members, voiced experiences of racism in Coronado schools and called for change.
“The whole town was calling for something to happen,” Chloe Berk, a Coronado High graduate said. “The world was changing, and we needed Coronado to change as well.”
In response, the district joined the No Place For Hate program, an anti-bullying initiative meant to foster inclusion created by the Anti-Defamation League. Quickly, the group We The Parents Coronado, which has been outspoken about these issues, portrayed the program as introducing critical race theory to Coronado schools. During a June meting, former We The Parents executive director and current school board candidate Gerri Machin said the program turned children at her daughter’s previous school into activists.
“The program created an atmosphere of division,” Machin said. “People couldn’t talk about certain ideas or thoughts, or they’d get cancelled, they’d be censored, they’d be intimidated, they’d be shamed and excluded.”
Declan Dineen, Coronado Unified’s student school board member at the time, said many of the concerns expressed by parents seemed unrelated to Coronado.
“A lot of the topics that people would bring to the table were nationally charged,” Dineen said. “People would get very fired up and emotional about what’s going on nationally.”
Tensions reached a breaking point the next year, when Coronado basketball players threw tortillas following their victory over a majority Latino school. It also inspired conspiracy theories that the tortilla event was a false flag meant to paint Coronado as racist to usher critical race theory into the district. When the board condemned the tortilla throwing as “racist, classist and colorist,” it unleashed a backlash including calls to resign, publicly posting school board members’ addresses and even death threats. A Fox News segment portrayed the incident as a “racial power grab,” and one YouTube video with the title “WOKE School Board Uses ‘Racist Tacos’ To Push CRT,” has racked up over 60,000 views.
The ‘Change Candidates’
As the November election grew closer, parents decided to run. Included among the standard group of community members, former educators and a current board member are candidates who trace their candidacy to the political battles of the last two years. For them, the election is about the need for significant changes at Coronado Unified. Those candidates include Machin, who became a regular at school board meetings, and less familiar faces like physician Mark Scheurer, former Navy orthopedic surgeon Scot Youngblood, and parent Lisa Meglioli, who has attended meetings of The RMNNT, an Awaken Church affiliated organization that trains conservative candidates and voters.
“When we differentiate candidates here – and I think you can kind of see a pattern – there’s some candidates who are kind of agreeing with the status quo, maybe they want to nibble at the edges a little bit but … then there are change candidates and I’m certainly one of those,” Youngblood said at a recent candidate forum.
Though they‘ve weighed in on typical board actions, like a recent change to the high school class schedule, their platforms revolve around the cultural battles playing out nationally.
Youngblood has been vocal about his view that masks and COVID vaccines are ineffective, and a recent presentation he gave on that topic at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting was touted by organizations like the Children’s Health Defense Fund, an anti-vaccine nonprofit headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“I would characterize his information as misinformation,” Mark Sawyer, UCSD’s pediatrics residency program director who has a clinical focus in the public health aspects of immunization said of Youngblood’s presentation. “He’s taking things out of context, and not explaining the full picture or giving you the whole story. I would question whether you want somebody like that on your school board.”
Youngblood declined multiple requests for an interview.
At a school board forum, Machin said her advocacy began after her daughter was asked what her pronouns were at school. “She was 11 at the time going through puberty and this was a seed planted in her mind for the first time. She had never considered that wow maybe I could … be a boy.”
“The ramifications of going down this road is surgery that is radical – taking out healthy organs,” Machin said. “This is where the state is going, and I’m really concerned.”
That concern about gender ideology at school has fed into the charge that education at Coronado schools is too political.
“They’re the ones who are trying to politicize everything,” said Bill Seager, a former school board member and longtime educator at Coronado Unified. “They say ‘We’ve got to get politics out,’ because they think when schools do anything that’s not strictly academic it’s political.”
The change candidates argue the district should focus exclusively on academic excellence – a talking point embraced by conservative school board candidates throughout San Diego, including Becca Williams, who’s running for SDUSD’s board and Let Them Breathe founder Sharon Mckeeman, who’s running for Carlsbad’s school board.
Coronado Unified, on its first post-COVID state standardized test scores, had the highest percentage of students of any district in the county to meet or exceed state English standards, and the second highest percentage of students who met state math standards. The district experienced slight decreases in the number of students who met standards during COVID, faring far better than students at neighboring San Diego Unified.
Seager said the calls for getting politics out of Coronado Unified have created the most politicized environment for the district in the decade and a half since he served on the board.
Where the board once squared off around budget issues, it’s now all about identity politics.
“Back in the old days, the arguments were about if we have to cut (the budget) where do we cut, or who gets more money,” Seager said. “And people got mad at me, but it was nothing like it is now.”
In the eyes of many, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey has been integral in fostering the new political dynamic. A prominent regional Republican, he has endorsed both Machin and Youngblood, and donated to Youngblood’s campaign. Current and former school board members said they couldn’t recall Coronado mayors getting involved in in school board races previously.
Bailey did not initially respond to a Voice of San Diego interview request, but posted a lengthy statement to a closed Coronado area Facebook group calling claims that he has politicized non-partisan races perplexing, given what he said was a history of candidates in non-partisan races seeking endorsements from political parties.
“Even more strange and, frankly disgusting, than this ‘partisan’ accusation, is a recent conspiracy created and promoted by a handful of people, that strongly suggests several local candidates and I are right-wing, anti-everything, white supremacists trying to take over the schools and the city with a secret agenda,” Bailey wrote.
Kevin Ashley, a parent of a former player on the school’s basketball team, is frustrated by what he sees as Bailey inserting himself into the tortilla-throwing incident. In numerous media appearances, Bailey accused the board of a “rush to judgment” and demanded an apology.
After this story published, Bailey wrote, “the parents of the basketball players and the coaches asked me to speak out on their behalf after the school board stated, without evidence, their actions were (fueled) by racism, classism, and colorism.”
Still, Ashley feels Bailey was not speaking on behalf of all parents.
“He was using our boys and using tortilla-gate for politics,” Ashley said.
‘We Had This Opportunity’
Beyond the rhetoric, there are big decisions pending at Coronado Unified, which have little to do with tortillas. Bruce Shepherd, a board member appointed when Stacy Keszei resigned after being censured for sharing board documents with We The Parents, is concerned they may be getting lost in the noise.
In the coming years, the district will transition to a new funding formula that is poised to increase funding to the district by between 5 and 20 percent, Shepard estimated. The next school board will have to handle that transition.
“We as a district are going to have to decide how we want to change our programs, and that’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of thinking,” Shepherd said. “It’s a great opportunity, but when people are screaming that we’re going broke it shows they just simply don’t understand, and that frightens me about candidates who haven’t put the time in to at least give pause to statements like that.”
Though it hasn’t been an overt part of the campaign, Shepard and others think the change candidates intend to replace the district’s superintendent, Karl Mueller, should they win a majority on the board. They point to a 2021 email that shows Keszei communicating with We The Parents founder Jim Fabiszak, Machin and others including Bailey about the need to remove Mueller.
“It all eclipses the more day-to-day good things that are happening, such as the tests performance and … makes it hard for people to stand up and say, ‘I support the administration,’” Shepherd said. “There is a subset of parents, or citizens in the community that just simply have been hostile to the administration of the district on virtually every issue since that, since (the tortilla) incident. And that’s too bad.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct that Mayor Richard Bailey did not post a photo of himself at an unofficial championship ring ceremony to the Instagram account of his congressional campaign and to include comments on the matter he offered after the piece was published.