Twin Rivers race features charter school operator, Democratic Party activist

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is running for the Twin Rivers Unified school board.
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is running for the Twin Rivers Unified school board. Sacramento Bee file

Charter school operator Sonja Cameron served as a Twin Rivers Unified trustee for about a month, filling the school district’s Area 5 vacancy in December after her predecessor pleaded no contest to a felony.

But local Democratic Party activists and neighborhood leaders took issue with Cameron’s swift appointment, and felt trustees illegally cut short their selection and didn’t consider public input. They quickly circulated petitions and collected enough signatures to unseat Cameron and force a May 12 special election.

Cameron, 69, is now running for the job she once held by appointment. In a two-way race, however, she faces stiff competition from Basim Elkarra, 35, a former member of the California Democratic Party’s executive board and head of the Sacramento office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Elkarra was one of the 12 other candidates denied the appointment, and he has begun tapping his political connections to raise money for the campaign. A kickoff reception at The Grand in downtown Sacramento on March 15 generated at least $25,000.

Perhaps even more significant was that the fundraiser host list was a virtual who’s who of local Democrats, including state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones; state Sen. Richard Pan; former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg; Assemblyman Jim Cooper; former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson; Sacramento council members Allen Warren, Steve Hansen and Angelique Ashby; and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna.

Twin Rivers school board member Linda Fowler said she believes activists circulated petitions to put Elkarra in position to run for the seat. “I believe it was orchestrated by the Twin Rivers United Educators and Kerri Asbury, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County,” she said.

“There is no question the position could be a steppingstone,” Fowler said.

Asbury, also a teacher in the district, said the petition drive had nothing to do with Elkarra running for the seat. She said the petition was born of “extreme frustration with the board doing what they want to do” and shutting out the public.

Elkarra said that although he is running for the trustee seat, he was opposed to the petition drive that made it possible for him to seek the office this year.

“I was against it and refused to sign,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t think you guys should do it, if it’s just one year.’”

The winner will represent Area 5, which includes North Natomas and Robla and has only two district schools within its boundary – an elementary and junior high. The special election comes after the resignation last year of Cortez Quinn, who pleaded no contest in October to conspiracy to obstruct justice in a paternity case.

The election, which will be decided only by voters in Area 5, will cost the school district an estimated $113,000. The seat is back up for election in 2016.

Cameron is chief operations officer and co-founder of the Pacific Charter Institute, a Rio Linda-based charter school network. One of its programs, Heritage Peak Charter Institute, is an independent-study and home-school program authorized by the Twin Rivers district. The school operates independently of the school district but serves Twin Rivers students.

Elkarra has been the executive director of the Sacramento office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for 10 years. He also has served on numerous community boards and committees.

Elkarra has been endorsed by the Democratic Party of Sacramento, Twin Rivers United Educators – the district’s teachers union – and the Twin Rivers chapter of the California School Employees Association.

“Elkarra is getting a lot of support because he has been active in the community and has made a lot of friends,” Cooper said. “He had everybody there (at the fundraiser) – Democrats and Republicans – that support him. Just people from a variety of communities and different ethnicities.”

Cameron calls her campaign a grass-roots effort that includes more door-knocking than fundraising.

“I don’t have any big politicians endorsing me; frankly, I haven’t asked any,” she said. “I have a group that has been helpful. We put up signs – normal things.”

Elkarra and Cameron say they have no political aspirations beyond the school board. Elkarra said he plans to run for the trustee seat again in 2016, but Cameron said she has no plans beyond the current term.

Elkarra’s campaign flier says his priorities are safe, modern classrooms; increasing student achievement; smaller class sizes; and resources to recruit and retain the best teachers. He also says he’d like to increase budget transparency, improve communication with parents and boost morale among teachers, staff and parents.

The San Francisco native has two children and is expecting twins around election day. His youngest will attend Regency Park Elementary School next year.

“My wife and I thought of moving our children to another district,” Elkarra said. “I’ve heard of all the challenges. But we love our neighborhood and all the neighbors. We are going to dig in and help to make changes.”

Cameron said she is running for school board so that Area 5 can have “a real and honest voice on the board.” She has 33 years of experience working in public schools.

Cameron said Regency Park parents should know they have multiple choices for middle schools in Twin Rivers. She said many parents don’t want to send their children to Norwood Junior High School, so they are moving their children to Natomas Unified middle schools, home schooling or using private schools.

“These are high-performing students and, if they don’t stay within your system, it is a brain drain and a fiscal drain,” Cameron said.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.