The discord that has plagued the Santa Clara County Board of Education for years became headline news in July when trustees, in a split 4-3 vote, censured Trustee Joseph Di Salvo.
That has helped spark the most divisive board races in recent memory, with the main point of contention being, you guessed it, charter schools. The Area 1 race is particularly hot. Charter opponents and proponents have donated a total of nearly $350,000 to the two candidates. This, for a seat on a board in which candidates generally spend about $25,000 on their campaigns.
It’s sad because the board’s work — and voters’ attention — should instead be focused on which candidates would best help the county Office of Education and local school districts improve early childhood education programs designed to close the achievement gap that plagues the county. Not to mention helping schools navigate budget and distance-learning challenges brought on by the pandemic.
But charter schools are again the lightning-rod issue because the county board can approve charter applications and hears appeals when local school districts turn them down.
The California Teachers Association is backing challengers in the three contested races, hoping to elect candidates who are less friendly to charters. Voters should instead reelect incumbents Grace Mah in Area 1 and Anna Song in Area 5. In Area 4, we cannot recommend either the incumbent Di Salvo or political newcomers Ketzal Gomez or Lucia Garcia.
Area 1 – Mah
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.
Area 4 – no recommendation
There’s just no other way to describe it. This race is a mess. Area 4 covers central and parts of East San Jose.
Di Salvo stands head and shoulders above his opponents in terms of experience. He is a former teacher and principal and has served on the county board since 2008. Di Salvo is unafraid to speak his mind on challenging issues, including charters. But there’s a rub. His aggressive demeanor can get him in trouble.
This year, Di Salvo was the target of complaints by two