In a city where politics is sport, Sacramento City Unified School District board races have attracted rising political stars and gobs of campaign money over the years.
But for the first time in decades, the capital city’s school district couldn’t attract enough candidates for a single competitive race in the November general election, allowing two incumbents and two aspirants to quietly take board seats without having to shake a single voter’s hand.
The ballot shutout doesn’t stop at Sacramento City Unified. Two other large Sacramento County districts, San Juan and Folsom Cordova, also will have no contests. Three people will slide into four-year terms at San Juan and two will become trustees for Folsom Cordova without a vote cast.
It’s been more than 20 years since all candidates have been uncontested in either San Juan or the Sacramento City districts. In the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, no-vote elections are becoming the norm. In the last two trustee elections, in 2012 and 2014, all candidates were unopposed, said outgoing Trustee Teresa Stanley.
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“We’re just taking it that we’re doing something right. Because nobody wants to get in there and stir things up,” Stanley said.
But Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said voters suffer by a lack of competition at the ballot.
“Elections are a process where you pitch your ideas and hope people agree with them,” she said. “And if they do, you get elected and they hold you accountable. If there is no election, we don’t have that accountability process unfolding as it’s supposed to.”
Two years ago, school board campaigns in Sacramento City Unified were grueling and costly. Total fundraising reached nearly $200,000 by election day, including $50,000 spent by the Sacramento City Teachers Association on behalf of four candidates.
The teachers union spent heavily in an attempt to defeat trustee Jay Hansen, who has called for the district to reconsider its employee benefits and focus on reducing pension obligations. An SCTA mailer showed Hansen, first appointed in 2012, as a shotgun-toting, cigar-chomping trustee.
He survived, buoyed in part by $31,000 from the California Charter Schools Association.
“I was a bit jealous,” Hansen said when asked about this year’s lack of competition. He thought the tenor of the presidential campaign may have played a role.
“It’s so vitriolic at the national level,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who are turned off by the whole thought of public office.”
When trustee Gustavo Arroyo decided earlier this month not to run for re-election, he said he “made the rounds” to let people know he appreciated their support. But he made no formal announcement. And the teachers association did not put forth a candidate for his seat.
Only one person filed for the post: Sacramento City College adjunct instructor Michael Minnick. He said he was surprised when he learned he was the only candidate in the race.
“It’s a little anti-climactic without an election night,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me at any point that I could be done by August. What is awesome about this is I have four months to get connected with the neighborhood,” which includes Tahoe Park, Glen Elder and other south area neighborhoods.
This time, the teachers association is backing only one candidate, Mai Vang, said SCTA 1st Vice President David Fisher.
Vang is a community activist who helped wage an unsuccessful campaign in 2013 to block school closures in underserved Sacramento neighborhoods. She replaces two-term trustee Diana Rodriguez, who announced Aug. 3 she would not run again. The seat represents south area neighborhoods, including Florin and Meadowview.
Two incumbents will get new four-year terms to the Sacramento school board: Christina Pritchett, this year’s president who is finishing her first term in office, and Jessie Ryan, elected in 2014 to fill a midterm vacancy.
Alexander said the limited number of candidates could be linked to a crisis in civic engagement nationally.
“We live in a time when the majority of people eligible to vote don’t vote,” she said. “Many parents don’t have any extra time to volunteer. It’s not just local government where you see a decline in participation, but also community organizations and other service organizations that have relied on volunteers. I’ve seen similar declines.”
Alexander, citing the 2014 race for Hansen’s seat, said campaigning has become distasteful for some people. In that campaign, she said, “We got piles of mail from those candidates. It was very expensive. So if you do run for a local down-ballot office, it’s competitive. You have may have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. That can be a deterrent.”
Bad news can be a catalyst to run for office. But most school districts these days are enjoying additional state funding, said Sacramento political consultant Andrew Acosta.
“The budgets are in better spots. You hear less about massive cuts and teacher layoffs,” Acosta said. “Most people, when they don’t hear things are being a problem, it’s not on the top of their minds.”
In the San Juan district, three seats were up for district-wide election. Incumbents Pam Costa and Saul Hernandez filed to run. But three-term incumbent Lucinda Luttgen did not, ending a 12-year stretch as trustee. Paula Marie Villescaz, the only other candidate to file, will take her place.
She placed fourth for a seat on the board two years ago and won 17 percent of the vote.
Villescaz, a legislative consultant, said Thursday she was shocked to win a seat outright. “I was definitely gearing up for a full-fledged campaign,” she said.
“My priorities are the same,” she said. “We still have a significant achievement gap in the San Juan district. In the (latest) board meeting, we were going over the (student performance) assessments and there is still a 30 percent achievement gap across the board. That’s a huge priority of mine. Our refugee population has doubled. We’re seeing families who did not benefit from the economic recovery.”
In Folsom Cordova, two seats were up for election. However, only two people filed: Board President JoAnne Reinking, elected in 2008, and candidate Chris Clark with the Folsom Cordova Community Partnership. Clark, whose partnership role includes education outreach, will replace Stanley, who is leaving after 20 years on the board.
Stanley said she decided not to run for another board term because her youngest “has graduated from college and has a job, so my ties for K-12 are less now than for the past 20 years.” She ran for the District 4 Sacramento County supervisor’s seat vacated by Roberta MacGlashan but lost in the June primary against four competitors.