Longtime school board trustee Linda Fowler is facing a serious challenge in a Twin Rivers Unified School District race from opponents who have more campaign funds and have attracted endorsements from politicians and unions.
Her challengers in the June 7 contest are Daniel Savala, 34, a field representative for Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren; and Francisco Garcia, 51, a stock clerk for Sacramento County who previously served on the North Sacramento School District board with Fowler.
Garcia is backed by the Twin Rivers teachers union and Sacramento County Democrats, while Savala has support from Warren and Twin Rivers school board President Rebecca Sandoval.
Fowler, 80, is running for the first time in a Twin Rivers neighborhood-based election. Only voters in her Del Paso Heights-based Area 7 will get to select their trustee, unlike past elections in which she campaigned for support across the entire school district.
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The two challengers say she has been in office too long. They have criticized Fowler for everything from high administrative salaries to the number of legal settlements the district has paid in recent years.
“She has been there for 40-something years,” Garcia said. “She is a perfect example of why a school board member should have term limits. They turn the district into their little dynasty. If you aren’t in their little clique, you get passed over for promotions.”
Fowler, a retired investigative auditor for the state Department of Justice, dismissed such criticism.
She points to the district’s recent accomplishments – eight schools named “gold ribbon schools” by the California Department of Education and increased graduation rates. “If they call it failing, I don’t know what their definition of failing is,” she said.
Fowler said she was instrumental in starting an apprentice carpentry program at Foothill High School and putting music programs in the district’s 52 schools. “This is one of the things this old broad can do,” she said.
During a recent debate, Savala said the district should focus on more basic needs. “I’d love to fund the arts,” he said. “But the problem right now is: Can our children read at grade level? Do we have 21st century learning? Do we have the proper books we need?”
He criticized Fowler for not attending meetings about North Sacramento hosted by organizations outside the school district. “There are so many people interested in North Sacramento, and when we come together the conversation is always about the schools and she isn’t ever at the table,” she said. “She has been invited.”
Fowler beat Garcia three different times in districtwide races. She isn’t sure how the switch to a smaller electorate based in her neighborhood will affect the outcome.
“I didn’t campaign at all in Area 7, because I know a lot of people there,” she said. “I concentrated in areas where they didn’t know me. This time I am only campaigning here.”
Fowler is currently the subject of a state Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into whether she violated conflict-of-interest rules by accepting thousands of dollars in consulting fees from Highlands Community Charter School, which she helped establish. The investigation is still pending, according to the FPPC.
She represents the school district on the charter’s school board and has said that school board members can legally work for charter schools in their district, and that she should get paid for her efforts on behalf of the school.
The school paid Fowler’s consulting firm $13,000 in two October 2014 installments to pursue a federal startup grant for the program. She said last year that she split the money with another consultant.
The controversy has added to the negative public perception of the district, Savala said. “We can’t do things like have Linda Fowler involved in charter schools,” he said. “It’s a personal decision she’s made that ultimately has an impact on what people think about Twin Rivers Unified.”
Garcia took the criticism a step further after Fowler spoke about the possibility of the adult charter school taking over the long-vacant North Sacramento Elementary School District headquarters at 670 Dixieanne Ave.
“I hear my opponent raving about this charter school, and yet this charter school is the scene of controversy because my opponent is being paid by that charter school on top of getting a stipend from the school district,” Garcia said.
Fowler challenged her opponents for their lack of attendance at school board meetings.
“They have no idea about what the district can do if they don’t come to board meetings,” she said.
Savala said he’s been to a few board meetings but hasn’t attended regularly because they typically fall on the same night as Sacramento City Council meetings.
“I’ve been to far more parent meetings than to school board meetings,” he said.
He doesn’t expect his job with the city to interfere with attending Twin Rivers board meetings if he is elected. He said Councilman Warren supports his candidacy, but that he would be willing to change jobs if necessary.
“I’ll be at the school board meetings,” he said. “We can figure that out.”
Savala called Garcia “a good guy,” but said he isn’t capable of doing the job. “I don’t think he has the understanding, the ability to look at issues critically, to show he can look at things with an open mind,” he said.
So far, candidates have raised only small amounts of money. Savala reports contributions of about $11,000 from a mixture of business and individual donors, including $100 from Twin Rivers Unified school board President Sandoval and $250 from Warren.
He said most of the individual donations are from close family and friends. “My mom had pozole fundraisers,” he said, referring to the traditional Mexican dish.
Garcia reports about $10,000 in donations. He is backed by the teachers union Twin Rivers United Educators, as well as the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers and the Sacramento Democratic Central Committee.
Fowler had only $1,332 in contributions as of April 24, the most recent deadline for filing a campaign statement. She didn’t know what her current balance was when contacted Tuesday. Fowler has received contributions from the Committee to Elect Sonja Cameron, as well as from a handful of individuals and a business. With backing from Fowler, Cameron won election to a vacant board seat last year but is not seeking re-election.
“I’m not supported by any special interest group,” Fowler said. “I never have been. I’m always focused on students. Mr. Garcia is completely in the pocket of the teachers union. Mr. Savala is with Allen Warren and developers. That is where he is.”