by Natalie Hanson
posted Oct. 14
A trio of candidates — two of whom are challenging incumbents — are backed by a new, conservative political action committee that has raised an unusually large amount of money that is filtering into the races for three hotly contested seats on the Chico Unified School District (CUSD) Board of Trustees.
The candidates -– Rebecca Konkin in District 1, Matt Tennis in District 4 and Logan Wilson in District 5 -– are funded in part by Chico Parents for In-Person Learning, and the three have raised far more than their opponents. The Chico Parents group formed a political action committee (PAC) in March 2021 as it unsuccessfully attempted to recall every CUSD board member, except for the group’s co-founder, Tennis.
The PAC had already spent more than $8,700 as of Sept. 24, when the county’s registrar received updated records of spending and contributions in the school board races up to that date. The PAC is managed by Integrated Solutions Political, based in San Diego, and organizers Gina Bax and the KAL Group, Inc., in Hilmar, Calif.
(Bax has been an outspoken parent at Rosedale Elementary School on matters related to equity and cultural inclusion. The KAL Group says it’s a campaign treasury and finance firm “serving Republican and independent candidates nationwide.”)
CUSD Board President Kathleen Kaiser said the race has been driven by “unprecedented” amounts of funding for the PAC’s candidates as compared to previous elections.
Tennis has received the most contributions of any candidate at a total of $16,270, while his opponent for the seat, Trustee Tom Lando, has raised less than $2,000. Wilson follows with $14,422 in campaign contributions, more than double that of his opponent, Trustee Eileen Robinson.
The Chico Parents PAC -– the group initially organized to protest school closures during the pandemic -– has donated $2,000 each to Tennis, Konkin and Wilson. The three candidates have also won endorsements and support from conservative elected leaders, other right-leaning candidates and controversial personalities like Chico First’s Rob Berry.
Two incumbent trustees -– Robinson and Lando -– and one newcomer candidate -– Scott Thompson -– have been endorsed by the Teachers Association. Robinson, Thompson and Lando are also endorsed — but not funded by — the progressive Stand Up for Chico PAC. (Stand Up says it has run a single ad supporting CUTA-endorsed school board candidates but doesn’t have the funds to help them directly.)
Kaiser -– who has served on the board since 2006 and is not running for reelection -– said the school board is not supposed to be associated with political “sides,” but political parties often use these elections as “low hanging fruit” to maximize their platform or groom candidates for higher positions. But while there are partisan groups on both sides in the races, funding for the conservative candidates is flowing far more generously.
District 5 race heats up
Incumbent and retired educator Robinson is running to keep her District 5 seat for the third time, and has raised $6,336 including $2,210 from the CUTA. The Democratic Action Club of Chico and No on Butte County Gerrymandering contributed $500 each.
Her opponent, agriculture businessman Wilson, the second-highest fundraiser in the election, has raised $500 each from Republicans Thomas van Overbeek and Sean Morgan. Van Overbeek is a Chico City Council candidate and businessman, and Morgan is a current Chico City Council member. Other notable funders are Bax with $250, Nicole Peterson $2,500, Kerry Wilson $1,000 and Peter Durfee for Supervisor $500. Wilson has also garnered an endorsement in two Facebook posts from local pastor Bryan Meyers of the evangelical Grace Community Church.
At the Sept. 27 candidates’ forum organized by the League of Women Voters, Robinson noted that during her tenure on the board a collaborative relationship with district teachers has grown and solidified. Candidate Wilson said he wants to “bring parents back into the classroom” and see more “qualified and trained aides” hired.
District 1’s newcomers
Thompson is running as a newcomer against another newcomer, Konkin. A manager at the county’s Department of Employment and Social Services, Thompson has raised just over $2,097, including $1,445 from the teachers’ union.
Konkin, a parent and part-time nursing assistant, has raised more than double, $5,470. Major contributors include PAC organizer Bax with $500 and Lance Tennis with $250.
Thompson was ill at the time of the forum and couldn’t participate, and Konkin therefore wasn’t allowed to participate.
District 4 incumbents face off
Meanwhile, two incumbents are running for the District 4 seat. Educator Tom Lando does not have a campaign finance report according to the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office because he has not met the limit of $2,000 for funds raised.
Opponent Tennis, a rice farmer and lobbyist, has raised money from the PAC as well as $500 each from the Chico Police Officers Association, Lance Tennis, and Bryce and Jill Lundberg. He’s received $250 each from Bax and van Overbeek.
Lando said he knows his opponent has raised much more in funds and has local business ties.
“It is ridiculous that anyone is treating a school board election like a partisan race,” Lando said. “It would be nice if the school board were actually about schools and students, instead of winning and who can yell the loudest.”
At the September forum, Lando said he wants to see a “focus on academics” as the schools get “back on track” following the pandemic closure “rather than getting sidetracked by culture wars.”
Tennis and the PAC have not responded to multiple requests for comment from ChicoSol, but at the forum last month, Tennis called the Covid-driven shutdown of Chico schools an “unmitigated disaster.” Tennis also said the California public schools system is undergoing a “dumbing down,” and on his website describes what he says is a “huge push statewide … to structure our entire public school system around identifying and boosting outcomes for traditionally under-served population groups.”
Candidates discuss equity, parental input, police on campus
Nationwide, school board elections have become a flashpoint for right-wing candidates around the country. Fueled by parents’ anger over pandemic shutdowns, a record 50 school board members in California were the targets of recalls in 2021, according to EdSource.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that conservative PACs are pouring money into school board races. “ … right-leaning groups are spending millions on candidates who promise to scale back teachings on race and sexuality …” the article says.
Locally, some observers and elected leaders are concerned about candidates who focus heavily on increasing a police presence on campuses and on “parental control,” worrying that they’re reiterating right-wing talking points.
Kaiser said the Chico races have been affected by conspiracy theories about public health decisions to keep children at home during part of the pandemic, noting that the school board was attacked for following Butte County Public Health guidance. The public health department based its guidance on state guidelines and Kaiser said CUSD could have been slapped with sanctions had it not shut down.
“It’s sad, because it’s made the school board appear to be a hot potato you can throw from one person to another and get them either positive attention or negative attention,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser said some parents are worried about what pronoun their child asks the school to use for them. “These are parents that believe the mythology that people are grooming their child to be a different gender or have a different sexuality. That is not going on. Or they believe in the myth that critical race theory is being taught. It is not being taught in our school district.”
As school boards in other states ban certain school materials, Kaiser said she is concerned the same will happen in Chico. She is worried that a new board majority could discourage or roll back protections for LGBTQ students even if state laws prohibit discrimination.
“The members of the school board are responsible for hiring the academic leadership of the district –- and that they themselves follow the law,” Kaiser said.
Two other local educators are also watching the election closely.
Former Rosedale Elementary assistant vice principal Joana Campos Castañeda, who is now active in the advocacy group Padres Organizados por Dignidad y Equidad en Rosedale (PODER), noted that prior to COVID, students of color and from low socioeconomic communities had much lower test scores than white students -– and said the three candidates want to return to old, uneven standards for academic excellence.
She said the school board needs candidates who will advance academic opportunities for students with less privilege or who may be disenfranchised.
Chico State public health professor Christine Leistner said she is concerned that the candidates are promoting parental choice on sexual health education in a state that mandates sex education in the fifth and ninth grades. (Candidate Konkin told ChicoSol last month that parents should have more input into the teaching of “sensitive subjects, for example sex education.”)
“There are already ways that parents can opt-out of this education and so it doesn’t make sense to run on that platform,” she said. “I am not sure why any school board candidate would want to deprive students of this important education that impacts their health for the better in so many ways.”
Leistner added that Tennis’s claims in public meetings that the district’s efforts to be more inclusive in the honors program will “dumb down” the program are “harmful” to all children in the district.
“When kids hear an adult that they are supposed to admire talk about poor children in a derogatory way, it makes it OK for them to do the same,” she said.
Castañeda said she has known for months this election will prove key for Chico.
“The things that are going to be put on the table that school board members have a say in are things like curriculum, how we allot money and the core and heart of where our school district is going in terms of student wellness and equity,” she said.
Leslie Layton contributed reporting to this story. Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer to ChicoSol.
This article mistakenly stated the district number in the race between Tennis and Lando, and was corrected Oct. 17 to correctly state they are running in district 4.