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Amid Backlash, Conservative Groups Target South Bay School Board Seats

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A darkened walkway at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in East San José.
A walkway at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in East San José. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

On a Saturday morning in late August, the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women hosted a meeting to recruit candidates for local school board races.

The gathering at Calvary Chapel on Hillsdale Avenue in San José began with a prayer from the group’s vice president, Mingi Bodine.

“Father, we are asking not only for your forgiveness of our sins but rescuing the children, who have been under the most evil public school system America has ever seen,” Bodine said.

For the next two hours, advocates implored potential candidates to pursue school board seats under the banner of “parents’ rights” — with the goal of policing textbooks and transgender expression and countering the influence of teacher unions.

The leader of one local parents’ rights group, Informed Parents of Silicon Valley, shared his plans to encourage parents to opt their children out of sex ed classes. And conservatives who had won seats on South Bay school boards offered unvarnished explanations for their leap into politics.

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“I decided I’m going to run. Why? Because they were hurting the children,” said Linda Chavez, who was elected to the board of the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, in East San José, in 2018.

“They had just finished passing all of this gay stuff,” Chavez said. “And this is one of the first districts who did it, and I looked around and said, this is all going to go this way — not on my watch.”

In 2022, Chavez and three other candidates backed by the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women won school board seats in the South Bay. A year later — as clashes over transgender rights, Pride flags, and LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum have spread across California and the nation — conservative organizations in liberal Santa Clara County are redoubling their efforts to gain a foothold on local school boards.

But they are facing growing pushback from opponents who are raising alarms about the groups’ collective aims.

On Tuesday, members of San José’s City Council denounced Informed Parents of Silicon Valley for using anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in their campaign to remove kids from sex-ed. In response, the council unanimously passed a resolution “affirming support of the transgender and broader LGBTQ+ communities.”

Councilmember Omar Torres, the city’s first openly gay Latino councilmember, co-authored the resolution. He was overcome with emotion as he attempted to speak from the dais — twice asking for more time to collect his thoughts, as other council members walked over to embrace him.

“I stand here crying not only as a councilmember but as a human who has been the target of hate solely because of my sexual orientation,” Torres said. “Right-wing individuals and organizations have made it clear to me, to our transgender community, to our LGBTQ community that we should be retreating back into the closet to hide our true selves and to conform to a version of society that denies me to be my true authentic self.”

Members of the council and their allies vowed to counter the influence of the conservative organizations — drawing battle lines ahead of what could be a more significant confrontation on school board ballots in 2024.

“What you don’t want to have happen is that everybody stays quiet,” said Ken Yeager, a professor of political science at San José State and the first openly gay elected official in Santa Clara County. “Then, these evangelicals think, ‘Oh, OK, the political climate has changed, we can be much more bold in our actions because there isn’t going to be any type of reaction to it.”

Informed Parents caught the attention of the council last month when their volunteers distributed literature outside of schools in the Cambrian, Franklin-McKinney and San José Unified school districts, which declared “Your children are at risk!” and accused local schools of teaching “Gender confusion and gender transitioning.”

Councilmember Pam Foley called the literature “inappropriate and totally unnecessary.”

“These fliers contain misinformation and hateful dog whistles that target our LGBTQ community,” she said.

Larry Pegram, the founder of Informed Parents of Silicon Valley, defended his group’s outreach to parents and said their agenda is not anti-LGBTQ+.

“We welcome anyone and everyone who’s interested in asserting parental rights over their children’s education,” said Pegram, a former San José councilmember, told KQED. “Whether those parents are gay, trans, cisgendered, or anything else really doesn’t matter to us.”

A core goal of the group’s opt-out campaign, Pegram said, is to teach parents about their ability to remove their children from classes they consider inappropriate, such as comprehensive sex education (which includes LGBTQ+ inclusive language) and HIV/AIDS prevention education.

A 2015 California law requires students to receive sex ed once in middle school and once in high school, although it can be taught earlier. School districts are required to notify parents about the instruction and inform them about their ability to excuse their child.

“All that we are doing is helping parents know what their rights are and make a decision as to whether or not they want to opt their children out of these various activities,” Pegram said.

Pegram told KQED his group is not involved in politics. But at the August church meeting for prospective school board candidates, Pegram offered extensive guidance to candidates about campaigning, fundraising and messaging, saying, “If you want to see a change in curriculum in the schools, you have to make a change in the face of the people that are running the district.”

“Our organization, Informed Parents of Silicon Valley, is dedicated to helping you candidates get elected,” Pegram said before adding, “Now, we’re a 501(c)(3) organization. We don’t — I’m doing this for the tape — we do not endorse any candidates.”

Pegram said his group’s distribution of the “opt-out bookmarks” will encourage like-minded parents to form organizations.

“If we can create parent organizations at the various school districts, we’ve got the army. So that when someone stands up and says, ‘Yes, I want to run,’ we’ve got an army … and we can begin to use that army for all of the labor needs that occur in a political campaign,” he added.

Critics of Informed Parents see the group as Pegram’s latest effort to target LGBTQ+ rights in the South Bay.

Yeager, who detailed the history of local LGBTQ+ politics in his book Run!, recounted Pegram’s opposition to ordinances protecting the city’s gay residents from discrimination in 1980. Later, Pegram was a local advocate for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage statewide in 2008.

“The focus is always on children,” Yeager said. “But obviously, their main aim is really to sort of take over politics and to sort of deprive LGBTQ people of the same rights as everybody else.”

Pegram maintained that his own political history is “irrelevant” to the current work of Informed Parents.

Dr. Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College, said she sees a similar playbook at work in the current debates playing out over LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

“The culture wars are all about finding that new thing that divides and tries to, you know, to pull away from the opposition’s coalition. And so maybe 10, 15 years ago, it was marriage equality,” said Michelson, who studies LGBTQ+ politics and transgender rights. “And now the focus has turned to what’s going on in schools, what’s going on in school libraries, what’s going on in school curriculums.”

Michelson said school board elections present a unique opportunity for small groups of well-organized activists. The races are often low-information contests, and candidates don’t run as a member of a political party, leaving voters without a partisan cue.

It’s also a strategic move in a blue state like California, where anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is unlikely to succeed at the state level. Instead, California’s Republican Party has made a concerted effort to invest in school board candidates as a way of building political power at the local level.

Last year, the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women supported more than a dozen candidates for school board across Santa Clara County.

Four of those candidates won: Marc Cooper in the Franklin-McKinley School District; Pamela Gardiner in the Morgan Hill Unified School District; Jim Zito in the Evergreen School District; and Linda Chavez, in her bid for reelection in the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District.

But their ties to conservative parents’ rights groups have created divisions at the local level. Cooper was censured last month by his board colleagues for appearing on a flier promoting his presence at an event organized by Informed Parents. The group was forced to apologize to San José councilmember Bien Doan for featuring his image on the same flier without his knowledge.

Tensions were already high leading into Tuesday’s council meeting. The resolution had initially called for the explicit condemnation of Informed Parents and accused the group of harassing families in their attempts to distribute opt-out literature. But after legal threats from the group, Informed Parents’ name was removed from the legislation.

At the meeting, about two dozen residents showed up to testify — many sharing personal experiences.

Sandra Rivera, a teacher and president of the teachers union in Alum Rock, told the council about raising a transgender son in local schools.

“As my son navigated who he was, it was through educators here in San José and in safe spaces created by them that helped him feel safe exploring his gender,” Rivera said. “Groups such as Informed Parents of Silicon Valley are wolves in sheep’s clothing trying to justify hate.”

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Other parents showed up to support Informed Parents and blasted the school board for condemning the group. Ha Tran, a San José parent of two, said the resolution was full of “false claims and should be discarded.”

“These groups are there because schools are not doing their jobs,” Tran added. “These schools are biased and promote LGBQT+ and cause kids to be confused.”

Michelson said that on its face, Informed Parents’ campaign to opt children out of sex ed classes is a far cry from efforts to out transgender students and ban books.

“I think for most people, that’s where it crosses the line — versus telling people, ‘Hey, just a reminder, you can opt your kid out of this curriculum,’” Michelson said.

But Informed Parents’ fear-mongering rhetoric and political activity, Michelson added, could undermine their stated goals.

“If you’re going to give it up that easy and people are going to know that that’s what you’re really doing, then you’re going to have to expect some backlash,” she said.

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