Local Elections

Elk Grove teachers union jumps into trustee campaign

Elk Grove Unified’s teachers union hasn’t endorsed a school board candidate in at least two decades and has never spent money in support of a campaign. But this year things have changed.

The union’s political action committee has spent almost $50,000 to back Crystal Martinez-Alire, an education coordinator at the Shingle Springs Rancheria. The union’s political foray comes after teachers in the region’s largest district grew frustrated during recessionary battles with district officials over compensation and large class sizes.

“It’s a big step for us to get out into politics, but we do believe it is time for the board to be one that supports labor-management relationships,” said Maggie Ellis, president of the Elk Grove Education Association.

In years past the union didn’t feel the need to endorse school board candidates. But, Ellis said, a rift emerged during the recession as teachers and district leadership negotiated a contract.

“When we had our major management split, the school board was part of that,” Ellis said. “It is time for us to get involved with our school board and to make sure we have members of the board that understand education and ... truly believe in joint labor management.”

The union created a political action committee in 2012 to raise and spend money on political campaigns, but it opted not to endorse in 2012 after interviewing the candidates.

This year, committee members decided to endorse Martinez-Alire after interviewing all four candidates running for the open Area 2 seat. “The PAC committee really believed the person that had the most understanding of education and commitment to education was Crystal,” Ellis said.

Martinez-Alire is running against educator James Letoa, business security consultant Tim Gorsulowsky and manager Nicholas Webster.

Since Sept. 17, the union committee has presented Martinez-Alire with a flurry of checks – two for $2,250 on Sept. 17, $6,872 on Oct. 2, $23,556 on Oct. 12, $11,321 on Oct. 21 and $1,158 on Oct. 23, as well as an in-kind contribution of phone banking and polling with a value of $2,368, according to documents filed with the Sacramento County elections office.

“Heck, that’s a lot,” said John Ennis, a former Twin Rivers United Educators president. During his 15-year tenure as a union president, Ennis said the association he led usually handed out $5,000 or $6,000 to each candidate it supported.

Ennis said he hasn’t heard of a union offering this much money to one candidate in Northern California.

“I don’t think that kind of thing gives you an advantage,” said candidate Webster. “We have a lot of support in the community.”

Webster has eschewed phone banks and mailers, saying “they are too expensive.” Instead, the candidate, who is funded almost entirely by family and friends, has relied on walking door to door. “I knew we wouldn’t have a big budget,” he said.

Martinez-Alire said union contributions to her campaign won’t keep her from being an independent vote on the school board. Her primary goal is “supporting the children,” she said, although she plans to work “collaboratively with teachers.”

Ellis said she has no expectation about how Martinez-Alire will vote if elected. “You never can tell,” she said. She believes the candidate will “sit down to listen and engage, vs. get elected and never sit down and talk to anybody.” She also is counting on pressure from Martinez-Alire’s mother – who works in the district – and former teachers who will encourage her to talk to people and to get all the information before making decisions.

Most of Martinez-Alire’s campaign money has come from the teachers union. The money collected by the PAC is from a $2-a-month voluntary contribution from each of its members.

“The majority of that is to contact a targeted voter group with mail,” Ellis said. “Most of it is printing and postage and phone banking. When you are trying to connect with voters, the quickest way is through mail, which does cost some money.”

Campaign costs are particularly prohibitive in Elk Grove Unified, the fifth-largest public school system in the state with 62,000 students. In EGUSD, candidates run for office to represent a specific area but are elected by voters who live across the entire school district.

“It’s a huge area to try to reach,” Ellis said.

The union is continuing to help Martinez-Alire in the days before Tuesday’s election, primarily with member-staffed phone banks.

Two other Elk Grove Unified seats were up for election this year in Areas 4 and 5, but incumbent Bobbie Singh-Allen and newcomer Beth Albiani automatically won those races as the only candidates who filed for office.

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

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