Seats on the Sacramento County Board of Education aren't usually hotly contested. But a controversial network of charter schools has changed that.
The June 5 contest for four open seats on the seven-member board has already generated one lawsuit and a flurry of donations from charter school opponents and proponents.
The undercurrent is that candidates are running in an effort to stop the approval of charter schools operated by educator Margaret Fortune, said board President Brian Cooley. He is not running for re-election.
"Quite frankly, I think there is a reason there are so many candidates," Cooley said. "Most people usually aren't even aware of this race, but the charter issue really put it on the forefront."
Two Fortune schools already are operating in the county, with three more approved. Fortune plans to ask to open five additional schools over the next decade. The schools focus on closing the achievement gap for African American students.
If two candidates opposed to the charter network were to win, they could tip the board majority. Harold Fong, who has only one opponent, voted against the Fortune schools last year. John Scribner, who has no opposition, and Rivas, who is not up for re-election, both abstained.
Scribner has reported a $100 donation from the political director of the California Federation of Teachers the state's largest teachers union on his campaign contribution statement.
Charters generally don't sit well with unions. The schools usually aren't unionized and they draw students and the dollars attached to them from local school districts.
Heather McGowan, one of four candidates running for the seat being vacated by Cooley, said the $4,900 fee for her candidate's statement was loaned to her by the teachers union for the Twin Rivers school district.
But Fortune isn't sitting idly by. As of March 17, she had donated $1,100 to Christina Shipman. She is running against Fong, who voted against the charters. She also has given $100 to incumbent Eleanor Brown, who voted for the charters.
A Charter School Political Action Committee has contributed $3,500 to the campaign of Penny Schwinn, a charter school operator, who is also running to replace Cooley. A sitting board member, Gregory Geeting, who voted for the charter, lent Schwinn $1,500 for her campaign.
McGowan wouldn't say whether she would vote against the charter schools if elected. "My biggest concern are that these schools are being brought to the county board for approval, instead of to local school districts," she said.
But McGowan said she would take a closer look at whether the county Office of Education legally approved the Fortune charter network. She said there is some question whether a county board can approve a chain of individual schools. "It could throw out the entire charter," she said.
McGowan said she was approached about running for the school board by local education leaders 48 hours before the deadline. She said there is no slate working against the charters. "We are running as individuals."
In the meantime, incumbent Fong waged a battle of his own. Fong sued county Registrar of Voters Jill Lavine to prevent his opponent from calling herself an "early childhood educator" in the voter pamphlet.
Fong asserted that Shipman, a manager for First Five Solano, an agency providing early education programs, is not an educator.
The court disagreed.
The rules about job titles aren't very stringent, said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar of voters for the county. A person's title should explain what they have done in the past 12 months and should be reasonable and clear, she said.
Editor's Note: This story has been changed from the print version to correct board member John Scribner's vote on the Margaret Fortune network of charter schools. Corrected on April 23, 2012.