As part of our election series “All Politics is Local,” we’re looking at some of the races voters will find lower down on their ballot. We hear plenty about the presidential election. These races are much less publicized, but no less important.
There are only two schools in the tiny Sausalito-Marin City School District: a charter school and a traditional public school. Tension is high this election season, after state investigators reported that the school board has favored the charter school over the district school.
Four out of five of the current school board members are affiliated with the charter school, Willow Creek Academy. One was a founder, and three are parents, one of whom also serves on the board of the charter school foundation. Many parents at the charter school are worried that two of those board members could be voted out this November.
"What we’re doing right now at Willow Creek is working!" said John Donovan, whose daughter attends fourth grade at the charter school. "I mean, we’ve got kids from all different walks of life coming in here, working together, studying together."
Both schools in this district are K-8 and both are about 30 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian, but they have very different percentages of African-American and white students. At the traditional public school, Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, 44 percent of the students last year were African-American, and 9 percent were white. At the charter school, 41 percent were white, and 12 percent were African-American. More than two thirds of the students at the district school qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. At the charter school, less than half of the kids are from such low-income families.
Sausalito is so wealthy that the school district receives more money from property taxes than the minimum it would get from the state. The state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team found the school board diverted some of that money to the charter school that it said should have been used at the district school. But the school board denies doing anything wrong. They say the district school already gets more money per pupil, and to give it additional money would be unfair to the charter school students, many of whom also have high needs.
"My feelings are that if they’re to detract from the charter school, we could jeopardize the progress that this whole district has made and wind up going back fifteen years in our progress," Donovan said.
Fifteen years ago, a group of parents in Sausalito started the charter school here. It used to share a campus with the traditional public elementary school, but over time, the charter grew to serve more than twice the number of students that the district school serves. Three years ago, the school board decided to move the traditional public school across the highway to Marin City and merge it with the middle school to cut costs.
Some parents at the Marin City school, Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, see the move as one of many ways the school board has shortchanged their school.
"The board favored them," said mother Kahaya Adams. "It's always favored Willow Creek. It's unacceptable that we have to suffer and get cuts. Willow Creek has teachers' assistants, they have a full P.E. teacher, they have a full math, full science. We don't even have a science teacher!"
Parents said the middle-schoolers at Bayside started the year without textbooks and with no permanent math teacher. Many parents are worried their kids are not being prepared for high school.
"My sixth, seventh and eighth graders do the exact same work," said Kimberly Robinson. "How is that? It’s not fair to these kids. There’s no way that they would let Willow Creek be going without books. We’re this far into the school year and we’re just now getting our books in."
Robinson and other parents at the Marin City school say they plan to vote for the two candidates who are challenging the school board incumbents.
The battle playing out in this tiny district is not so different than in other school boards in California. School board races in California seem to be attracting more attention than in the past, in part because of the state's new policies on school funding. In addition to changing the way money is allocated to school districts, California's funding formula also gives local school boards more control over how to spend money.
"Urban and suburban school districts have become a battleground for a number of high profile issues," said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. "One is charter schools."
In bigger districts, charter school backers and teachers' unions (which oppose charters) contribute campaign funds to influence elections.
"If voters don’t show up, we’re going to give power away to these special interests, rather than electing board members who have the broad interests of trying to improve schools for all kids," said Fuller.