In what may be the first attempt in California to unseat an entire school board, high school students and supporters who want to oust all five members collected enough signatures to put the issue before voters, the Tuolumne County clerk said Friday.
The students organized the recall campaign as a civics project after the board of the Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District voted to get rid of their popular math teacher, a former professional football player.
“We’re pretty excited about it,” said Tioga High School senior Billy Hilton, 17, one of the student leaders of the recall effort. “I don’t think this has happened many other places. We were able to do it because our school and community are so small and tight-knit.”
The school board is scheduled to meet next week to receive formal notice that the recall has qualified. The board will have the option of calling the election itself and allowing a vote entirely by mail. The election is most likely to be held May 5, said Tuolumne County Clerk and Auditor-Controller Deborah Russell.
The California School Boards Assn., which represents 95% of the state’s school districts, does not keep election records, but staff members said the recall of a school board is uncommon if not unprecedented.
“We can’t remember a time when a whole board has been recalled,” said Susan Swigart, communications director for the 76-year-old association.
At Tioga High, where the recall campaign began, students were beginning to contemplate campaign activities, including putting together a voter pamphlet and holding a debate among candidates for the board.
Civics teacher Tim King, who helped the students turn their class project into political action, said he was proud of what the teenagers had been able to do.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in,” he said. “They don’t realize what they have accomplished. When was the last time you heard about an entire school board being recalled?”
The sparsely populated district near Yosemite National Park is nearly as large in square miles as the Los Angeles Unified School District but has just three schools and fewer than 500 students.
School board President Lillian Cravens said the campaign to oust the board is in keeping with the community’s quarrelsome style. Notorious for political bickering and personal rivalries, the district has run through seven superintendents in the last eight years and 15 school board members in the last five.
“These people are always fighting up here,” she said. “They are always threatening a recall. This time they just followed through.”
The latest controversy began in September after Supt. Mari Brabbin and the school board removed Ryan Dutton from his job teaching math at Tioga High over an allegation of plagiarism. He also lost his post coaching baseball.
Dutton, 31, who was studying for his teaching credential at Cal State Fresno, was accused of copying another student’s homework in March. He denied the charge.
It is unclear how the allegation reached the school district. The university said the allegation was unfounded, but the school board has refused to take Dutton back.
After his removal, the entire student body staged a one-day protest that shut down the high school. Soon after, the students began organizing the recall campaign.
The students have appealed to the school board to rehire Dutton, but the members have declined, saying they trust the information about him that they received in private.
Most of the students are not old enough to vote or collect signatures, but parents and teachers joined in support of the effort. The campaign needed 910 signatures for each school board member and collected about 1,200, easily qualifying for the ballot.
Opponents of the recall have wondered whether the students were being used by some in the community to settle old scores.
School board member David Gookin took the qualification of the recall in stride, saying, “It’s the right of the electorate in a democratic process to ask for a recall.”
He said he stood by his record but had not decided to what extent he might mount a campaign to retain his post. He has no regrets about Dutton’s removal, he said.
“I have no apologies for the action I took as a board member,” he said.
Cravens, who was appointed nine months ago and elected president in December, said serving on the school board was a thankless job. Her husband, she said, will be the happiest man in town if she is ousted.
“If I don’t get recalled, that’s fine,” she said. “If I do get recalled, that’s fine. I don’t see any reason to campaign. People who know me know the truth about me.”
Cravens, who was the registrar at Aptos High School near Santa Cruz for 30 years, retired to the Groveland area five years ago. “The sad part of it is they do their best to ruin your reputation,” she said. “Now people look at me like I am some kind of thief and monster.”
Dutton, who hopes to return to Tioga High and resume teaching math, said he was overwhelmed by the support from the students and community.
“I knew that I had a good relationship with them, but you never think that the kids would rise up and do something of that sort,” he said. “I can’t say enough about their support. It reiterates for me that this is the right career for me.”