The Santa Clara County Board of Education is one of those obscure elected bodies that rarely attract much public interest or candidates. Seven members, each representing a geographic district, oversee the county Office of Education, which runs programs and special schools, such as those serving incarcerated youth and students who have been expelled from their local schools. More importantly, it also approves and monitors the performance of charter schools in the county.
After 13 years on the Palo Alto school board, Melissa Baten Caswell is looking to extend her involvement in local education by unseating 12-year incumbent Grace Mah, also from Palo Alto. The region comprising "Area 1" extends from Palo Alto to Sunnyvale and includes Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, which was started by a group of parents 17 years ago and now educates 1,100 students, almost a quarter of all students living in the Los Altos School District.
There is a long history of conflict between Bullis and the school district, mostly relating to issues of educational equity, the siphoning of students out of the public school system and the requirements imposed on the district to provide facilities for the charter.
As has occurred in other county board of education elections throughout the state, outside charter school interests are pouring money into Mah's campaign. Obviously worried that Baten Caswell's extensive political connections and ability to raise funds threatens Mah's reelection, Mah has received more than $100,000 from two charter PACs since the last reporting period closed on Sept. 19. That brings her total to more than $180,000. Baten Caswell has raised about $140,000, including some from opponents of Bullis and charter schools.
Mah has served three four-year terms on the county board, which is as long as we think anyone should serve. But if that weren't enough, the large outside special interest money that is flowing to her campaign is disqualifying. When more than half of her campaign funds come from two pro-charter school groups, how can the public have confidence that she serves with independence when overseeing charter schools in the county?
Baten Caswell's long history of working for a strong public education system, including at the county level through the School Boards Association, will serve north county well and ensure that Bullis and other charter schools are carefully and fairly monitored.