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Conservative Group Backs Only 10 for Board Seats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only 10. That’s how many candidates the conservative Education Alliance trained and supported to stand for election to school boards in Orange County this year.

Four years ago, 36 ran and 13 won--enough to take a sixth of the county’s school seats, with majorities in Garden Grove, Westminster and Orange.

That was the year the Education Alliance burst onto the scene with its agenda of getting conservative Christian candidates onto school boards and instituting a back-to-basics, anti-union regime. Local though the group is, its immediate success earned the Alliance a high national profile, with liberals and teachers unions fearing that its tactics would be imitated across the country.

The Alliance shelled out $66,000 to back those 1996 candidates; according to recent candidate statements, it gave no money to current school board campaigns.

The group has been having trouble finding candidates, and teachers union officials and groups that monitor right-wing organizations say they are hardly paying attention to the Alliance this year.

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But Alliance leaders warn opponents not to assume the group has been vanquished. Rather, co-founders Jim Righeimer and Mark Bucher say they are focusing on bigger campaigns.

Over the summer, Righeimer said, he helped form a political action committee, the Family Action PAC, which is devoting resources not just toward electing school board members, but also city council members and representatives to the state Assembly. Already, the group has dispensed nearly $45,000 to conservative candidates across Orange County, according to state campaign finance reports.

The goal is to influence education policy at local and state levels. Because of term limits in the Assembly, today’s city council members are often tomorrow’s Assembly members.

“This is pretty scary that they’re getting involved in city council races and Assembly races,” said Elizabeth Parker, an 18-year member of the Orange County Board of Education who has been critical of the group."They’re trying to influence the next generation of Assembly and Senate people.”

Bucher also has been heavily involved in raising money and campaigning for Proposition 38, the school-voucher initiative, leaving the day-to-day operations of the Alliance to Phillip E. Yarbrough, a trustee of the Rancho Santiago Community College District, and Ken Williams, county Board of Education member.

Yarbrough and Williams conducted this year’s candidates training, held over three weekends in August. They taught candidates how to talk to the press, how to file campaign statements and how to prepare for the opposition they would face from teachers union officials once it became known they were associated with the Alliance.

It’s hard to be a conservative Christian on a school board, said Wendy Leece, a Newport-Mesa trustee who was supported by the Education Alliance in 1994. That, she said, is why the number of candidates fell this year.

“There’s not a whole lot of people out there who want to expose their life and family and history to scrutiny by the media,” said Leece, who was criticized for her proposal to post the Ten Commandments on classroom walls. “The price and the cost is great. There are hurtful things said, and you have to have a thick skin.”

Righeimer agreed that running for school board “is a bigger commitment than a lot of people realize. It’s a bigger commitment than just putting your name on a ballot.” But he said the Alliance also got a late start on recruiting candidates. And Williams noted that the number of school candidates has declined this year in general.

In part, Righeimer said, the troubles in recruiting and keeping conservatives on school boards were why he decided to step back and form the political action committee.

Although not all Alliance candidates espouse exactly the same views, most are religious conservatives who champion phonics, “back-to-basics” instruction and the belief that teachers unions are strangling public school reform. Many also believe in school vouchers.

Despite the formation of the new committee, Parker said she believes the dearth of candidates this year shows the Alliance’s strategy failed. It had been conceived by Bucher, Righeimer and others in 1994 after the defeat of a prior statewide voucher initiative.

Then, the group was heavily supported by Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., an Orange County banking heir known for his Christian-based conservatism. Ahmanson’s Fieldstead Co. gave only $5,000 this year to Righeimer’s Family Action PAC.

The Family Action PAC, in turn, gave $500 to $1,000 to every one of the Education Alliance’s candidates. The Education Alliance itself did not give any money to its candidates this year, according to reports filed with the county registrar of voters.

Bucher said the Education Alliance did not give money this year because other organizations, such as the Family Action PAC, now handle that funding.

But Parker speculated that the group didn’t raise much money this year--in part because taking over school boards has proved harder than anticipated. Keeping candidates in office once they were elected also posed problems. Frank Ury, one of the group’s founding members, lost his seat on the Saddleback school board and then couldn’t get it back. Others associated with the group, such as Kim Guth of Fullerton, gave up this year after only one term. The group is backing candidates for school boards in Huntington Beach Union, Brea Olinda Unified, Garden Grove Unified, Newport-Mesa Unified, Santa Ana Unified, Tustin Unified, and Westminster and Fullerton school districts.

Most of the candidates the group supports this year are political unknowns, not expected to win, said Shirley Guy, a political consultant for the California Teachers Assn.

She said the Alliance does not appear to be poised to take over any school boards.

“They’re not nearly the threat they have been,” she said. “My sense is they have had trouble raising money . . . and we’ve been successful in defeating them in several elections.”

Instead, she said union officials have turned their energies and considerable fund-raising power toward the defeat of Proposition 38.

Righeimer said he also will continue to look at the bigger picture.

“Education Alliance is a good forum for getting at local school board issues that we care about,” he said. “But you’ve got to expand it more. . . . We’re going to be around for a long time.”


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