What would normally be a quiet race in West Sacramento's tiny school district has erupted into a high-stakes, cash-fueled flash point for education reform advocates and teachers unions.
Coming down the stretch to Tuesday's vote-by-mail special election, the competing interests with open pocketbooks are lining up behind two major candidates.
West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, meanwhile, sees the election as a defining moment in his dozen-year campaign to combat poverty and social ills in the riverfront city.
The latest campaign disclosure statements show one candidate for a seat on the Washington Unified School District board, Francisco Castillo, received a $15,000 contribution from the StudentsFirst education reform group. Castillo is deputy national press secretary for the group, led by school reform icon Michelle Rhee.
Castillo also received a $10,000 contribution from the California Charter School Association.
He reported collecting a total of $59,000 in his campaign for the remaining 18 months of a seat on the board, which governs nine schools with just over 7,400 students.
He's also been endorsed and financially supported by Cabaldon, who has been trumpeting the need for change in the lackluster school district, as well as by Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan and two sitting school board members.
Another candidate, Folsom Cordova Unified teacher Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, raised $26,000, including a $10,000 contribution from the Washington Teachers Association and $5,500 from Sacramento City Teachers Association.
A third candidate, Linh Nguyen, reported collecting $1,500. Candidates Nicholas Scott Turney and Katherine R. Gales did not file financial disclosure forms.
Kirby-Gonzalez, a former Sacramento County teacher of the year, called the escalating financial donations from political action committees along with the cost of the special election "disheartening."
"We wouldn't have had to raise this kind of money if outside PACs hadn't been pouring so much into my opponent's campaign," she said.
She said she is not running just to benefit teachers. "I'm not here to save pensions; I'm running as a mom and a teacher," she said. "It has been amazing that so much is being spent on this campaign, especially since the election is already costing the school district $120,000. It's ridiculous and sickening. I knew we would be outspent, but I've worked hard to have a competitive campaign."
Castillo downplayed the battle lines between him and Kirby-Gonzalez. "I know people want to pit reform advocates against the status quo," he said. "I think we have more in common than some realize. This is not a national ideological battle as some are trying to frame it. I'm just focusing on my campaign and getting my message out there."
Castillo's message is that West Sacramento schools are not preparing students for college or jobs, and he is prepared to try new models being floated statewide, even opening charter schools.
He said only eight students at the district's only traditional high school, River City High School, have been identified as on track for state college, out of a school of nearly 2,000 students.
More than half the district's students are not proficient in reading and math, Castillo said. The district is heavily Latino, and students are struggling with English.
"I'm supportive of great educational options to parents, whether it's a traditional public school or a public charter school," he said. "I support charter schools. I'm not going to shy away from that."
While Kirby-Gonzalez agreed that West Sacramento's schools need to improve, she said she declared her candidacy because she's tired of decisions being made by board members who don't have classroom teaching experience.
"Much has been blamed on classroom teachers over the years, and I'm frustrated, because we see policies in the classrooms being decided by people who don't really know what's going on," she said. "I want to elevate the voice of teachers."
Cabaldon, who made a personal contribution of $2,500 to Castillo's campaign, said the involvement from teachers unions and reform groups has drawn attention away from the city's drive for economic and social success.
"This is a heavily politicized issue nationwide, but not in West Sacramento," Cabaldon said. "For StudentsFirst and the teachers union, it's a battle cry issue, but not for West Sacramento. This is not an ideological discussion for us. We're much more pragmatic about this."
He did, however, acknowledge that West Sacramento's "continued renaissance" depends on fixing problems in the school system, and he views the fight for healthier schools as a reflection of his mayoral legacy.
Cabaldon supported a move last November to remove an appointed board member to replace someone who had moved away, and launch a special election for the remainder of the term. He said he's happy about recent changes on the school board that have brought fresh faces from diverse backgrounds.
Cabaldon said he's baffled by the cash being poured into campaign treasuries from outside interests in this election, and the high number of candidate mailers being distributed. "I think spending just snowballed," he said. "They're just fighting with each other and filling up our mailboxes."
StudentsFirst started supporting candidates in local school board elections in fall 2012, getting involved in 100 races nationwide, said spokesperson Jessica Ng. The group also is currently supporting school board candidates in Los Angeles and Burbank.
The election activity backs up the group's mission of enacting student-focused reforms, and ousting non-reform school board members in favor of reform-minded representatives, she said.
Donald Stauffer, president of the Washington Teachers Association, said the union spent more on this campaign than last November's election, which was the first campaign it contributed to in recent history. The union is backing Kirby-Gonzalez because of her classroom teaching experience, he said.
"When we interviewed her, it became clear she knew more about educational policy and curriculum than any of the other candidates," Stauffer said.