Pro-Charter Money Floods West Contra Costa School Board Race

The Pro-Charter PACs, Education Matters and California Charter Schools Association, have spent over $350,000 on this year’s school board election. (Richmond Confidential)

Richmond’s City Council and Mayoral races won’t be the only hot topics at the polls Tuesday, and Chevron isn’t the only entity flooding money into this year’s campaigns.

Two pro-charter school PACs and one pro-charter school couple have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a School Board race that has not received much attention from financial contributors elsewhere.

In an open letter called “Our Schools Are Not For Sale,” a group of 28 parents from the WCCUSD (West Contra Costa Unified School District) voiced their concerns regarding charter schools and the influx of “campaign money from deep-pocketed charter school supporters.”

“Charter schools concern us because they siphon off students and money from the other schools in the district, without sharing the challenges of educating ALL students,” the letter stated.

This November, three out of five seats on the WCCUSD Board of Education are open for election. There are ten candidates in the race. Two of the candidates, Elaine Merriweather and Madeline Kronenberg, are incumbents.

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The California Charter School Association, and its subsidiary PAC, has spent over $200,000 in independent expenditures on the school board campaign so far.

Stephen Chamberlin, the retired owner of a real estate development firm, and his wife Susan, have contributed a combined $4000 to the campaigns of Liz Block, Valerie Cuevas, Raquel Donoso, and Elaine Merriweather.

Chamberlin and his wife are also the founders of Education Matters, a pro-charter school PAC, to which they have donated $250,000 of their own money. Education Matters, in turn, has spent over $100,000 on the race.

Three of the School Board candidates, Liz Block, Valerie Cuevas, and Raquel Donoso, have either received direct contributions from Susan and Stephen Chamberlin or have benefitted indirectly through the PACs’ independent expenditures.

(Richmond Confidential)
(Richmond Confidential)

In a statement to Richmond Confidential, Block wrote, “I am not a ‘charter person.’ I am not a ‘district’ person, despite a long career as a district educator. I am a students and student-outcomes person.”

Cuevas stated, “I do not support school vouchers nor do I support for-profit charter education providers. However, I also believe that the parental demand for charter options in our district will not cease as long we fail to adequately see improvement of chronically low performing schools.”

Despite only vaguely allying themselves with charter schools, Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas have benefitted from about $130,000 and $85,000, respectively, in independent expenditures from Education Matters and the California Charter School Association.

In 2013, of the nineteen public elementary schools in Richmond, Richmond College Preparatory – a charter school – held the highest Academic Performance Index score (API), with 828 points. Peres and Valley View Elementary schools – which are not charter schools – came in second and third, with 816 and 815 API points, respectively.

School Board incumbent Madeline Kronenberg has faced the brunt of the PACs’ opposition spending – in total, the California Charter School Association has spent over $100,000 in campaign literature and mailings opposing Kronenberg, and Education Matters has spent just under $25,000 doing the same.

Kronenberg has raised just over $62,000 in contributions for her campaigns, or around half the amount the PACs have spent on her opposition.

Publicly against charter schools, Kronenberg argues that the charter school application process pulls engaged families and students out of neighborhood schools, to the success of the charter schools and detriment of neighborhood schools.

“I would expect every school that has 100% engaged parents to outperform schools without that benefit,” said Kronenberg.

The concern among some parents is that big-money corporations and PACs believe they can buy their way into the city.

Addressing the pro-charter school PACs, WCCUSD parents wrote, “We can tell you that no magic bullet is going to solve the challenges of public education. Rather, creating success in public schools means rolling up your sleeves and working with your child’s teachers, administrators, and district staff on behalf of all students.”

Check out a response from Stephen Chamberlain, co-founder of Education Matters, on other spending in the WCCC school board race and the track record of charter schools in Richmond.

This article originally appeared on KQED's News Associate site Richmond Confidential.