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In Sunol, a School Board Recall Divides the Town

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

View the full episode transcript.

An election to recall 2 school board members is underway in the 900-person town of Sunol in Alameda County. The recall targets 2 of the town’s 3 school board members, who voted in September to ban all flags other than the state and federal flags, which recall supporters saw as an attempt to prevent a LGBTQ Pride flag from being flown at the district’s only school.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra:  I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra:, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Voters in the small town of San Noel in Alameda County are being asked to decide whether to recall two of its three local school board members.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This comes after the two voted last September to ban flags other than the state and federal ones, a move many saw as a ban on raising a pride flag at the district’s only school. And for a town of just 900 people. The politics of school board recalls is affecting everyone.

Guy Marzorati: There are so many houses with yes on recall signs. Are no one recall signs? Sometimes they’re staring right at each other from across the street today.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: How the big politics of recalls reached personal.

Guy Marzorati: Sunol is a really small community, kind of tucked in Alameda County between Fremont and Pleasanton.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Guy Marzorati is a politics and government correspondent for KQED.

Guy Marzorati: Only about 900 residents. And generally, it’s a high income community with a slightly older population than some of the city’s nearby it. The district is just one school son. Oakland School boards a K to eight with about 260 students. Highly regarded academically, and what makes it kind of unique is that most of the kids that go there don’t actually live in Sunnyvale.

Guy Marzorati: They transfer from nearby districts into the school, because there just aren’t enough kids in Sunnyvale to actually fill up the school. And that kind of has some interesting implications for, you know, this political discussion and the politics at play here.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And so for a pretty tiny school district, how many people are on the school board?

Guy Marzorati: There’s only three members Ted Romo, Linda Hurley and Ryan Jurgensen. And it’s those last two, Linda Hurley and Ryan Jurgensen, who are facing the recall. So two out of the three board members in Sunnyvale are facing a recall in this election.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Tell me a little bit about the events that that really kicked off this recall campaign.

Guy Marzorati: So about a year ago, in June of 2023, the superintendent of the snow Glen school allowed the pride flag to be flown outside of the school grounds. After that, these two board members, Ryan Jurgensen and Linda Hurley, say that they heard from members of the community who questioned the decision to fly the pride flag in the context of what about other flags?

Guy Marzorati: What’s the decision process for having a flag that we want to have flown outside of the school? So they say after they heard these comments, they came back to the board and introduced this ordinance that would restrict the flying of only the U.S. flag and the California flag at the school.

Guy Marzorati: Opponents took this as a direct rebuke to the flying of the LGBTQ pride flag, and it turned into a really contentious debate that really started to get eyeballs on this. An old Glen school district and kind of really led these two board members on the path of the recall.

Guy Marzorati: It’s worth saying, though, this is not a unique fight to. The flag restriction is one of the most controversial policies that we’ve seen really ignite fights in school boards across California.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It’s not uncommon, it sounds like. But how did things change at the district as a result of that flag ban?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, it seems like things just kept escalating after that.

Newscaster: Right now, at 11, a fight over flags, a show of support for one community is met with chaos and resistance. The new words from parents.

Guy Marzorati: The vote attracted a lot of media attention. Because, you know, up until this point, most of these school board fights that have happened in California have happened not in liberal places like the Bay area.

Guy Marzorati: Meetings in Sunol all become incredibly contentious. There’s been instances where law enforcement has been called, and then this all led up to November, where this recall campaign got underway.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Let’s talk about these two school board members who are facing a recall. Ryan Jurgensen and Linda Hurley. Can you tell me a little bit more about them?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah. So the first trustee facing recall is Ryan Jergensen.

Ryan Jergensen: I think our time and our efforts need to be focused on the children and on education. That’s it.

Guy Marzorati: He was appointed to the board in 2021. I think he has four kids who got us an old Glen school, the only board member of the three who actually has kids in the school. And yeah, he voted along with Hurley on those flag restrictions. Hurley was elected in 2022, and she was the first board member to actually get into some hot water, actually, even before the flag debate played out.

Linda Hurley: Dear fellow trustees, I say that because I too sit on a school board towards an Oakland Unified School district. We are receiving.

Guy Marzorati: It was a few months after she took office. She actually attended this local meeting, not in Sunnyvale, but it was a local meeting, that was talking about curriculum and books available in some schools. And she stood up and she started criticizing this book called Gender Queer, and questioning why this was available to kids in local libraries.

Linda Hurley: We should be jealously guarding the innocence of our children and hope that you will be too. We have the ability and responsibility to defend our children at all ages from these assaults. Our school has a parent committee that will review all materials, and I personally will be reading as many of them as I can to make sure they are suitable for our children.

Guy Marzorati: She also floated the idea of discussing certain state legislation at snowboard meetings, including, what’s called a transgender reporting law, and these have gotten attention all over the state.

Guy Marzorati: Basically, they require teachers or school staff to notify parents when their kids have expressed a different gender or requested different pronouns to be used other than what’s on their school record. And so I think those actions really linked early to this broader conservative school board movement and really set our opponents off.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who’s behind the recall effort then?

Guy Marzorati: So you have a number of parents, local teachers organizing, this recall. Matthew Sylvester is one of the leaders.

Matthew Sylvester: I’m, personally in been living here for ten years. Parents of child at the school.

Guy Marzorati: He says he volunteers at the school garden. He runs a little, farm business, in the community. And for Sylvester, his involvement in the recall, what got him interested in this is what he sees as Jergensen and Hurley bringing kind of culture war issues to Sunol.

Matthew Sylvester: We’ve seen politics introduced to the school, and what we’re hearing more is like culture wars, that, that seem to be with the lens, the focus right now on LGBTQ issues, you know, and anti-trans type bills that have been introduced.

Matthew Sylvester: And so we’re seeing a dysfunctional board. The damage that we’ve seen happen in such a short amount of time, a matter of months, if they were to stay in office for the full terms, so much more could spiral out of control.

Guy Marzorati: I think he feels like that takes away from creating this, inclusive school community where kind of all families are kids feel welcome.

Matthew Sylvester: All these things just keep adding up and it just creates this turmoil. That we were what we were talking about, this wonderful, peaceful school that was here once upon a time, not too long ago. So we’re trying to get that back.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Who else is supporting the recall effort guy?

Guy Marzorati: Well, we have seen on the financial side, the biggest donor in support of the recall is the California Federation of Teachers, who represent educators in the snow Glen school. And they’ve been the largest donor. They’ve given about $30,000 to the yes recall campaign.

Guy Marzorati: I talked to union leaders who say, like the policies that they disagree with, these controversial policies, this upheaval is having a direct impact on the teachers that they represent in the classroom.

Guy Marzorati: But their involvement has gotten some criticism, particularly from Republicans, conservatives who see these recalls in some cases as power grabs and see the union as kind of the orchestrating force trying to get more union friendly members onto the board.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, how the two school board members have responded to the recall campaign and what this says about school board politics across California. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming back to the two school board members facing the recall. I mean, how have they responded to these efforts to recall them?

Guy Marzorati: I talked to board member Ryan Jergensen, and he kind of sounded just bewildered that this was happening.

Ryan Jergensen: It’s a small town, and it has divided this town and becomes such a fight that I don’t want, didn’t want, don’t really want to participate in.

Guy Marzorati: He says, you know, he’d been on the board for a couple of years with no previous controversy. He says residents came to him with concerns about the flag, and he defended his vote, basically saying the most fair way to address the issue is just to allow the US flag and the California flag. And he says, you know, this was not about any anti LGBTQ feelings that he had.

Ryan Jergensen: I may be a Christian. I may have religious beliefs, but I do not wish that in the school I never have. I am trying as best I can to make the school neutral down the middle.

Guy Marzorati: And he really takes issue with people describing it as a pride flag ban because he says the ordinance, he never mentions the pride flag or a ban on any other flag. But he does acknowledge that this vote really led him on the path to recall. And he says, you know, unfortunately, he’s been receiving threats, to him and his family really, since this campaign started.

Ryan Jergensen: The response of people is, is just it blows my mind, the the inflammatory remarks, the comments, the assumptions, the lies.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And what about Linda Hurley? What does she have to say about the recall?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah. So Linda Hurley didn’t respond to my request for an interview, but she did defend herself back in March when this recall made it onto the ballot.

Linda Hurley: It seemed some people would look for any possible way to attack me and orchestrate at least half a dozen persons to insult and verbally abused me with name calling and twisting my words.

Guy Marzorati: And like Jergensen, Hurley, you know, says the flag vote was not driven by any anti LGBTQ animus. She blames the third school board member, Ted Romo, for really heightening tensions and supporting the recall.

Guy Marzorati: The arguments she puts forward really sound a lot like the pro recall arguments, which is, you know, my opponents are pulling the district into these divisive fights. They’re the ones that are pulling the focus away from the K to education that’s going on in the school. So you hear a lot of the same talking points actually, from both sides of this recall campaign.

Linda Hurley: We have been distracted from what we as a school board should be focused on. The purpose of education is to teach students how to reason and think well so that they’ll be prepared for high school, college, career, citizenship and wherever their lives take them.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Has anyone come out in support of these two school board members? Any groups?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, I mean, there are certainly some residents who support the board majority, the two board members who are facing recall and the no campaign. While it doesn’t have the same kind of financial resources as the yes campaign, they are getting help from the Alameda County Republican Party, which has listed defeating the recall as a top priority.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Does this recall in the Bay area seem unique to you at all, or does it seem part of a larger trend? Because this is by far not the first time we have talked with you about a school board recall in the Bay area, right?

Guy Marzorati: No, I mean, we’ve increasingly seen these fights over gender identity, and curriculum in some cases end up in recall elections in California.

Jonathan Collins: I look and I see a perfect storm.

Guy Marzorati: One person who definitely does not feel like this is an outlier is Jonathan Collins, who’s a professor of politics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. And I talked to him on KQED’s Forum. He described it as, in his words, inevitable.

Jonathan Collins Well, I think this fits perfectly into what we’ve been saying, which is the trend of the nationalization of local politics and especially school board politics.

Guy Marzorati: You know, this is what happens when board members who may have won a seat for the first time, push policies that might go out of bounds with what voters in that district are actually have an appetite for. And he feels like there was going to be blowback. And now you’re seeing it happen in the form of these recall elections.

Jonathan Collins: If you travel back in time, you know, ten, 20 years before school board elections, they didn’t look anything like this. And the idea of a school board recall election was not only a faint idea, but it was something that would never have these kinds of partizan political parameters that we’re seeing now.

Guy Marzorati: There have been three so far this year, you know, would be the fourth one. Most of the times when we’re talking about a recall, it’s been conservatives or others targeting progressive elected officials, whether that’s Governor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Chase Aberdein in San Francisco, or let’s bring it back.

Guy Marzorati: The 2022 recall of school board members in San Francisco, which, you know, a number of politicos I talked to for this story pointed to that moment as saying, okay, this is a very important moment in this story of school board recalls, where back then you had, yes, a more progressive school board members face a recall.

Guy Marzorati: But it was this really important moment in this trend of school boards becoming more contested political ground.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: When is the recall exactly? And what happens if these two school board members are, in fact, recalled?

Guy Marzorati: So voting is underway right now in the recall election. The last day to vote is July 2nd. And if those two board members are recalled, it would leave the board with just one member. So without a quorum. So the county Office of Education in Alameda would actually have to get involved and kind of step up with appointments just to keep the board functioning until the next election.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And how has all of this affected life since an old guy?

Guy Marzorati: Everyone I talked to for this story, from recall organizers to Jurgensen, they all say the campaign has upended life in the community and really divided the community. And you can see that like when I was driving through snow, there are so many houses with yes on recall signs or no on recall signs. Sometimes they’re staring right at each other from across the street.

Guy Marzorati: You know, Matthew Sylvester talked about this where he says, you know, I had relationships, long standing relationships with neighbors that have now just been reduced to. Do you support the recall or are you against the recall? And it’s hard to say whether that kind of divide is going to go away after July 2nd.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What do you think? What is happening in signal says about these school board recall fights that are happening all over, like. Is there some something we could take away from this particular fight?

Guy Marzorati: Yeah, I think this does signal, and just an increased interest in school boards politically that I think will feed into more of these contentious debates, certainly on the ballot in November, where you have hundreds of school boards across the state holding elections.

Guy Marzorati: We’ve seen in the last couple of years, Republicans in California get more invested in school boards. They’ve been kind of shut out of power at the state capitol. They’ve lost elections up and down the ballot. So they’ve said, okay, let’s invest and try to win school board seats, even though school board members don’t run as Democrats or Republicans.

Guy Marzorati: And now I think with these recalls, you’re seeing the counter to that. You’re seeing opponents of these conservatives say, okay, let’s get organized ourselves. Let’s put together these campaigns to kind of combat what we feel have been oversteps on the part of these conservative board members who’ve been elected.

Guy Marzorati: So it’s that kind of push and pull of, of school board control that I think is played out in these recalls we’ve seen in Orange County, in Yolo County recently in Riverside, and now one coming up in Alameda.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well Guy, thanks so much.

Guy Marzorati: Thank you.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Guy Marzorati variety of politics and government correspondent for KQED. This 22 minute conversation with Guy was cut down and edited by Adhiti Bandlamudi. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape.


Ericka Cruz Guevarra: We got additional production support from Izzy Blum. Music courtesy of The Audio Network. The best production of listener supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, thanks for listening. Peace.

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