A student protests school closures at San Diego Unified with a group of parents and other students
Summer Misarti raises a sign during a protest in September 2020 urging San Diego Unified to release a plan for opening schools. When asked about distance learning, Misarti said, "I really don't like it. It doesn't feel good but it's better than nothing." / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

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Fueled by two years of pandemic politics over masks, vaccines and culture wars, conservatives mobilized to run for school board seats. But conservative candidates saw mixed results in school board elections nationally, and San Diego was no different. 

Former San Francisco Giant Aubrey Huff, whose combative conservative views and anti-vaccine beliefs generated national attention on Twitter, lost his run for Solana Beach’s school board in a landslide. Sharon Mckeeman, whose organization Let Them Breathe mounted some of the most organized opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, trails significantly in her race for Carlsbad’s school board. Scott Davidson, a lawyer for Let Them Breathe, also seems poised to lose his Carlsbad bid.  

McKeeman said she’d hoped the election would break down less along party lines than it had. But while knocking on doors, she was dismayed to find that many folks in her district were voting on issues, like abortion rights, that in her view have little to do with school boards. 

“People would ask me about issues that weren’t school board issues and let me know that they were going to vote on those issues,” McKeeman said in an interview on Friday. “Or even though it was a nonpartisan race, that they were going to vote down party lines.” 

Students at Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido. School district’s masking policies became a point of contention for some parents. / File photo

McKeeman argues the Carlsbad’s teachers union support of her opponent was difficult to overcome. She said in an Instagram live video that it is essentially “funding and buying off school boards.” She blames the union for Carlsbad schools not opening quicker. 

She’d also hoped more voters would vote with what she’s called the “tyrannical” education policies of the past two years in mind. The fact that they didn’t, she said, may point to more people than she expected “being okay with what happened over the past few years,” McKeeman said in the Instagram video. “Which is crazy to me.” 

Still, she said, individuals aligned with McKeeman’s beliefs were seeing success in districts from Rancho Santa Fe to Lakeside. 

McKeeman’s opponent, Michele Tsutagawa Ward, a former educator in Carlsbad Unified and current principal of Tierra Bonita Elementary in Poway Unified, said the union ultimately supported her because she shared their values.  

“COVID brought out a lot of parts in us that didn’t feel good,” Ward said. “People were unhappy, people were dying, people were getting very sick … And I think that at that time (McKeeman) really kind of capitalized on that.” 

She views the results as an indication the salience of pandemic politics in education may be waning and people’s desire to move forward. 

“The pandemic was a moment in time and we’re starting to get back to normalcy,” Ward said. “People are ready to move on and be in a better place because that’s just kind of how humans are, right? We want to recover from things, we want to be stronger, we want to be happier.”  

Projection Wars in San Diego Unified 

School Board candidate Becca Williams at the Grant Hotel on Nov. 8, 2022. Williams trailed Cody Petterson by nearly 10 points as of Friday. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

The teachers union-backed liberal educator Cody Petterson holds a ten point lead over conservative charter school founder Becca Williams in the race for San Diego Unified’s District C board seat. On Friday, he declared victory in a Facebook post, writing that he’s excited to begin to help lead the district.

The race devolved into a heavily funded partisan slugfest in the final month, with the teachers union spending for Petterson and a conservative super PAC backing Williams. Petterson’s backers highlighted Williams’ opposition to the district’s mask and vaccine policies and portrayed her as a cowboy hat wearing MAGA Republican and COVID conspiracy theorist. Meanwhile, Williams’ supporters depicted Petterson as a social justice activist who would continue leading SDUSD down a path to failing schools. 

For both Petterson and Williams, that partisan turn was no surprise. But while Petterson was relieved of the shift, especially given the Democratic lean of the district, Williams hoped it wouldn’t come to that. 

“I’m glad, frankly, that both the voters and the media … were able to clearly see this was always political,” Petterson said. “School boards are inherently partisan. They’re nonpartisan in the sense that on your ballot designation it doesn’t have your party, but they’re clearly not nonpartisan in larger political sense and electoral sense.” 

Williams viewed the union’s depictions of her as disingenuous and even filed a cease-and-desist order against what she said was the union’s false advertising. She also complained that at times she felt like she was running against school board member Richard Barrera, who was vocal in his opposition to her. 

“The problem when you try to blow a dog whistle in a community like ours is that we hear you loud and clear and we reject that kind of agenda in our schools,” Barrera said. “People in our community support our teachers, support our schools, and believe in a positive vision for our schools and reject the efforts on the part of some to drag our school board races into divisive national politics.”   

But for Williams, Barrera’s stance is pure projection. 

“Their messaging was Trump, Democrat versus Republican, COVID conspiracies and abortion,” she said. “I don’t know how you could get more of a national platform than that. We ran on this is a corrupt local board and this is a local problem. We’re running against the last decade of failed leadership.” 

Despite the race briefly tightening, by Thursday, Petterson’s lead widened again and Williams felt more discouraged about her chances. She said she’d expected later vote dumps to favor her, a reversal of a longstanding pattern of Republicans voting early in San Diego. But on election night, she said she was still proud of the campaign she ran, controversies and all.

“I feel really good about everything we did,” Williams said. “Look, we ran in a district that Cody should have won by 20 points. It’s pretty amazing the kind of things that went on in this race in terms of (the teachers union and Barrera) beating the shit out of me, in terms of partisan politics and stuff like that. And we really held our own.” 

The RMNNT Trained School Board Candidates Reduced to One 

A member of the community speaks at a Coronado School Board meeting on Oct. 20, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Four of the five school board candidates that attended The RMNNT trainings, a conservative voter and candidate education organization that operates out of conspiracy-laden and right-wing Awaken Church seem to have been soundly defeated. They included Jesse Vigil and Keren Dominguez who ran for the Chula Vista Elementary School District, Andre Johnson in the Encinitas Union School District and Rebekah Naputi in the Sweetwater Union High School District.  

Though trailing in the latest numbers, the fifth The RMNNT trained candidate, Lisa Meglioli, who ran in the Coronado Unified School District board still has a path to the board. Overall, in Coronado, where two years of roiling school board politics inspired a tense, contentious school board race centered on pandemic politics like masking and vaccination and culture war issues, conservative candidates saw more success. Scot Youngblood, who’s expressed anti-COVID vaccine views received the most votes of any candidate running for the four-year board position, and looks poised to earn a spot on the board. 

But it was by no means a wash for candidates preferred by The RMNNT. Of the more than 60 school board candidates the group endorsed county wide over half of them led as of Thursday night. Those candidates were concentrated in East County communities like Lakeside, Ramona and Bonsall and in districts like Grossmont Union High School District. Conservative candidates also found significant success in Vista, Escondido and Fallbrook. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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4 Comments

  1. In response to Mr Barrera – there is a huge difference between supporting Teachers and agreeing with the politics within school districts. While right now it is a ripple, as time progresses and Parents and the Taxpaying Community become more educated on the facts (test scores, disparity amongst the education of our SpEd students and much more) that ripple will Tuen in a TIDAL WAVE. While I disagree with many views of those labeled Conservative – I am astonished at THE TOTAL TRUST PHILOSOPHY a of the general public.

  2. Would be interesting to see a survey of voting patterns limited to just voters with kids in K-12 schools, not the entire voter pool.

    I suspect the results of such a survey of those with skin in the game would be significantly different than the actual election results.

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