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California Recall Elections Test Strength of Conservative School Board Movement

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A bearded man sits outside while assembling blue and yellow yard signs.
Matthew Sylvester assembles yard signs that say, 'Recall Jergensen and Hurley from the school board' at his home in Sunol on May 29, 2024. In September, Jergensen and Hurley voted to ban all flags at Sunol Glen School beside the state and federal flags. Some saw it as an attempt to prevent a pride flag from being flown on campus. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A fight over control of the local school board has gripped the Bay Area community of Sunol, a small town of fewer than 1,000 people tucked in the hills between Fremont and Pleasanton.

A large banner supporting the recall of two board members in a July 2 special election hangs across the street from the district’s only school. Up Kilkare Road, opposing blue and yellow lawn signs for and against the recall face off on opposite sides of the street.

The push for a recall in this rural corner of Alameda County followed a September vote by board members Linda Hurley and Ryan Jergensen to enact a ban on flying flags other than the U.S. and California flags — after the district’s superintendent had flown the LGBTQ+ pride flag earlier in the year.

Sunol Glen School in Sunol on May 29, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The flag dustup was just one skirmish in a year of fights over LGBTQ+ inclusion and identity, along with disputes over board management and decorum, that sparked raucous meetings and staff turnover.

Matthew Sylvester, a parent who is organizing to recall Hurley and Jergensen, likened the upcoming election to a “civil war” that has divided the community and reduced his relationships with his neighbors to a simple litmus test: whether they support or oppose the recall.


“All these things just keep adding up, and it just creates this turmoil,” Sylvester said. “This wonderful, peaceful school that was here once upon a time, not too long ago — we’re trying to get that back.”

Similar fights over conservative school board policies are heading to the ballot in communities across California. On Tuesday, the board president of the Temecula Valley Unified School District in Riverside County faces a recall election over policies akin to those passed in Sunol. In March, two conservative board members in Orange County were recalled — along with another trustee in Woodland, outside of Sacramento, who was criticized for anti-trans remarks.

The string of recalls testing the gains of California conservatives on local school boards represents a pivot from the recent spate of high-profile recall efforts across California — which have mostly targeted elected officials on the left: from Gov. Gavin Newsom to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and three progressive school board members in the city.

These school board recalls are mostly powered by groups of parents, disgruntled by combative rhetoric and policies they view as too socially conservative, along with teachers and, in some cases, the powerful unions who represent them. Conservatives, meanwhile, see the recall elections as a series of power grabs meant to restore the supremacy of teacher unions in school politics.

The recalls are the latest act in a pandemic-era saga that has transformed previously sleepy school board seats into some of the most bitterly-contested political ground in California — home to fights over distanced learning, mask requirements and curriculum. Melissa Melendez, a former state senator and Assembly member representing the area in and around Temecula from 2012 to 2022, pointed to the San Francisco school board recall as an early flashpoint.

“I think a lot of people looked at that and said, ‘You know, I think I see an opportunity here,’” said Melendez, who is now the state director of the America First Policy Institute, a think tank aligned with former President Donald Trump.

“It’s not as easy to recall someone, perhaps, in state elected office,” Melendez said. “But we’ve seen some success with school boards, and I think that it has gotten people on both sides of the aisle to look at it a little differently, hence the number of recall elections we’ve seen just in the past couple of years.”

Recalls in Yolo, Orange Counties in March

One of the board members recalled in March, Woodland Joint Unified High School trustee Emily MacDonald, came under fire following comments she made during a June 2023 board discussion about a resolution recognizing Pride Month. MacDonald questioned why transgender Americans were grouped with gays and lesbians under the banner of LGBTQ, and she warned that “social contagion” is causing children to undergo gender-affirming surgeries.

MacDonald was recalled with 63.6% of the vote in a special election that was consolidated with the state’s presidential primary. That same day, recalls against two trustees in the Orange Unified School District, Rick Ledesma and Madison Miner, passed with over 53% of the vote.

A yard sign says, ‘Vote No’ in Sunol on May 29, 2024, referring to a July 2 school board recall vote for 2 Sunol Glen school board members. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ledesma and Miner had voted to ban flags other than the U.S. and California flags from flying on district flag poles — a move seen by opponents as targeting the LBGTQ+ pride flag. They also approved a local transgender reporting law, requiring teachers and school staff to notify parents when their child asks to be identified as a gender other than the one listed on their birth certificate.

Such policies have been actively shopped to districts by right-wing activists and Republican lawmakers. The state GOP, locked out of power at the state capitol, has turned its attention toward school boards, holding trainings for candidates and investing in their campaigns. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party has historically had less interest in school board elections, in which candidates don’t run with a party affiliation.

As the conservative policies spread across school districts last year, California’s decentralized system of school governance created hurdles for opponents to respond.

A law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to create financial penalties against school districts for banning books was watered down amid objections from the statewide association representing school districts. And while Attorney General Rob Bonta has sued local districts to overturn transgender reporting policies, legislation to ban the policies was only introduced in the legislature a few weeks ago.

Statewide, these conservative policies face an uphill battle in a reliably Democratic bastion like California. A ballot measure campaign to enshrine transgender reporting along with bans on transgender sports participation and gender-affirming surgeries failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Similar proposals authored by Republicans in the legislature have had no success.

But those same issues — inclusive curriculum, transgender protections and parental involvement — are at play locally in the recall elections.

Conservative policies backlash meet in Temecula

Joseph Komrosky is facing removal less than two years after he was elected to the five-member governing board of the Temecula Valley Unified School District — part of a wave of victorious school board members in Riverside County backed by a political committee organized by a local Christian pastor.

Temecula school board president Joseph Komrosky (center), who is facing a recall election on June 4, is joined by supporters at a rally on a busy street corner in Temecula on Saturday, May 18. (Madison Aument/KVCR)

Komrosky led a board majority that enacted a transgender reporting policy, banned critical race theory (which was never taught in the district) and removed a supplemented curriculum that referenced gay rights icon Harvey Milk, who Komrosky referred to as a “pedophile.”

Parents, teachers and community members with a political committee called One Temecula Valley have spent months knocking on doors to get people to mark “yes” on their recall ballots, arguing that Komrosky’s policies have had a chilling effect on classroom instruction and discussion.

“I worry for my teacher friends, my high school teacher friends that are looking over their shoulder or they’re afraid of what to say in their classroom,” said Susan Allen, an elementary school teacher in the district.

Komrosky and his supporters have argued that the board’s conservative members have simply followed through on the vision of public education they laid out in their campaigns. When Komrosky ran for office in 2022, he openly criticized critical race theory, transgender expression, and what he described as inappropriate discussion of sex in classrooms.

“I’ve just done what I said I was going to do,” Komrosky said. “I’m a man of my word.”

Assessing the role of statewide teacher unions

Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, said the recall elections in Orange and elsewhere are an attempt by teacher unions to orchestrate a do-over of recent school board votes.

“They lost regular elections and as soon as they got majorities that didn’t want what they wanted, they put a lot of money into special elections,” Whitaker said. “In a special election, you can actually motivate a targeted voter base better than you can in a general election.”

People listen at the Sunol Glen Unified School District governing board meeting in Sunol on March 12, 2024. The meeting went for at least 4 hours. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Unions representing educators have played a key role in financially backing the recall campaigns. The Orange Unified Education Association, a local affiliate of the California Teachers Association, was the top contributor to the recall in Orange, shelling out $58,636 in donations, supplies, office space and consultants. The CTA also contributed $38,400 to the Temecula Valley Educators political committee that is supporting the recall of Komrosky — and $1,500 toward the recall of MacDonald in Woodland.

In Sunol, the California Federation of Teachers has contributed the majority of the resources to remove Jergensen and Hurley, spending $22,915 on banners, signs and voter data.

CTA president David Goldberg called the campaign in Orange County a “great example” of educators and parents launching grassroots organizing against board members they felt had gone too far to the right.

“CTA’s role is there, I mean we have a statewide infrastructure,” Goldberg said. “But these local campaigns are run by the locals themselves.”

Goldberg said too much is at stake, both for the educators who make up the union membership and the students they teach, to wait until the next election to challenge policies they vehemently oppose.

“[Elections] happen every four years, right? If you’re a student in high school and you have policies actively targeting you and your humanity, that’s your entire high school career,” Goldberg said. “You don’t get to wait another four years.”

‘I don’t know if our town will ever recover’

Sunol school board president Ryan Jergensen said the outcry in the small Bay Area community had been misplaced. The restrictions he approved on flags were simply an attempt to avoid future fights, and even legal action, over giving preference to a specific flag, he said. Now, voting is underway in the election that could remove the father of six from office.

School officials are sitting behind desks with a microphone in front of them.
Trustee Ryan Jergensen (center) listens to public comment during a Sunol Glen Unified School District governing board meeting in Sunol on March 12, 2024. Jergensen and Trustee Linda Hurley (right) will face a recall election in July. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

“I don’t know if our town will ever recover from the all-out attacks and war that’s being thrown by the recall side, the tens of thousands of dollars thrown in by the teachers union to kind of squash two small-town community members, one who has kids in the school,” Jergensen said. “It’s going to be hard for people to want to support a school, to support the town, [to] come together.”

Regardless of the results in Temecula and Sunol, California’s school board fights appear unlikely to die down. Republican officials and conservative activists are determined to continue recruiting candidates and investing in school board races in hopes of regaining momentum in the fall. Many Democrats, union leaders and recall organizers said the four recall campaigns have been a wake-up call, a reminder to vigorously contest school board seats in November.

Ann Crosbie, a Democratic activist and former school board member in Fremont, spent the last year traveling to meetings of the state Democratic party and its local central committees, where she implored party stalwarts to pay attention to the races at the bottom of the ballot.

“Democrats need to be aware because recall campaigns are very expensive, and they take a lot of time and effort that could be spent on supporting students,” Crosbie said. “We all need to be paying attention the first time.”

This story included reporting from KVCR’s Madison Aument.


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