Charter school advocates flood Sacramento education races with $300,000

Roy Grimes and Harold Fong
Roy Grimes and Harold Fong Sacramento

Charter school advocates have spent nearly $300,000 backing candidates for three seats on the board of the Sacramento County Office of Education, positions that once were considered sleepy political outposts.

Besides providing oversight for Sacramento County school districts, the education board reviews the charters of countywide charter school systems and hears appeals from charter schools whose applications have been rejected by local school districts.

In recent years, the California Charter Schools Association has emerged as a major player in supporting candidates for the board. This year, the advocacy group has focused its donations on three candidates: Joanne Ahola, who works for the association; Heather Davis, who is married to Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis, an employee of the charter schools group; and Roy Grimes, a former county education board member challenging an incumbent who has voted against reauthorizing charter schools.

Carlos Marquez, senior political director for the Charter Schools Association, said it views the Sacramento County Office of Education as “a really strong safeguard, a strong backstop for (preventing) politically motivated denials (of charter schools) at the local level.”

“We are happy with the board,” he added. “It’s really important right now that we maintain continuity.”

The county Office of Education has so far chartered five schools – all part of a network operated by Margaret Fortune that focuses on closing the achievement gap between African American and other students. Fortune recently finished serving as a California State University trustee and was an adviser for former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they are throwing so much money into this race,” said Orlando Fuentes, 65, who is running for the Area 6 seat to represent the south county, including Elk Grove. “It’s clear to me that the California Charter Schools Association is eager and willing to put up this kind of money to get charter school advocates on public school boards.”

Unlike the expensive 2012 races for three SCOE board seats, teachers unions haven’t spent heavily so far, though the charter school spending hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I’m not surprised to see the Charter Schools Association spending money on candidates of their choice,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “They are an organization that has an agenda. They .... support candidates that push their agenda.”

The charter advocates gave the most support – $131,700 – to Grimes, 66, who has served on the county board and that of the Sacramento City Unified School District.

He is running against incumbent Harold Fong, the only member of the county education board to vote in December against reauthorizing the Fortune schools for another five years. The Area 7 seat occupied by Fong includes much of south Sacramento.

Fong said the donations from the Charter Schools Association to Grimes represent “a lot of money to spend on a campaign to get rid of one person who is basically the one dissenting vote.”

Fong, 67, says he is not anti-charter and he has supported other charter schools in the past.

He said he is frustrated that the teachers unions haven’t jumped into this year’s races with financial support.

“This has become a unimportant race to them,” he said. “... There is not much I can do if there is no help out there.”

Marquez said the organization’s support of Grimes is based on his focus on closing the achievement gap. “He focuses on kids in poverty and kids of color that have fallen through the cracks and currently aren’t being served,” he said.

Grimes, a teacher, said he generally supports community and parent choice in schools, but that as an education board member he would evaluate each charter individually. He said he doesn’t know how he would have voted on the Fortune schools.

“I wasn’t there,” he said.

Ahola, 34, garnered nearly $75,000 toward her campaign to represent Area 4, which includes Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Carmichael and Fair Oaks. She said the county Office of Education helped to close the achievement gap when it chartered Fortune schools.

“I think their role is to continue to approve quality charter schools and to approve petitions that are going to serve kids well and not to approve charters that won’t do well for kids,” she said.

Ahola is running against local public relations business owner Michael Alcalay, 53, who received $5,000 from the charter advocates. He was surprised to hear how much the Charter Schools Association arm was spending on the race for his opponent.

“It’s difficult for candidates who go up against a lot of money, because I can’t communicate my message effectively because we are on different playing fields,” he said.

Marquez said, “We think he would be a fine board member, but we think Joanne Ahola has demonstrated a level of leadership on school choice, a grasp of our issues and a level of leadership that is second to none in the race.”

The Charter Schools Association also has spent $86,100 backing Heather Davis, 38, in Area 6.

“She is from a community – Elk Grove – in a district with residents who are paying attention and know and respect Heather Davis,” Marquez said.

Davis, who also had a $2,500 donation from Taylor Morrison of California, a builder with interests in Elk Grove, would not comment for this story.

Davis and Fuentes are running against Stephanie Nguyen, a nonprofit director, and Jrmar Jefferson, a community volunteer.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert