San Diego Unified School Board race becomes partisan brawl about abortion, vouchers, Texas
For years, education experts across the country have overwhelmingly said the biggest challenges facing schools are helping students recover from the pandemic, supporting students’ mental health and closing achievement and opportunity gaps between groups of students.
But a hotly contested race for one spot on the San Diego Unified School Board — which is supposed to be nonpartisan — has in many ways centered on other topics like abortion, school vouchers and Texas, as two politically opposite candidates duke it out in the last few days before Tuesday’s general election.
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The competition between Republican Becca Williams and Democrat Cody Petterson for San Diego Unified’s sub-district C, which spans coastal San Diego city including La Jolla, Mission Bay and Point Loma, has become one of the most expensive local school board races in recent history amid the partisan fighting. Political action committees have spent more than $367,700 either supporting or attacking the two candidates, according to county filings as of Wednesday.
Petterson and his allies, the biggest of which is the San Diego Unified teachers union, have latched onto Williams’ Republican-leaning policy views as ammunition for their campaigns to elect him in what is a largely Democratic district. Mailers paid for by the teachers union call Williams a “MAGA extremist,” “COVID conspiracist” and “Texas Republican” — Williams lived in Texas for a few years, where she founded a charter school network, Valor Education.
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Petterson and the union are emphasizing his attributes as a current district parent who himself attended public schools in sub-district C, as a Democrat who has worked with state and local government for years on issues including education and the environment, and as an educator who teaches anthropology at UC San Diego as reasons why voters should trust him instead of Williams.
“We’re deeply concerned about this election and think San Diegans should be too,” said Dan Rottenstreich, campaign consultant for the San Diego Education Assn., which is San Diego Unified’s teachers union. “[Williams] has a right-wing, extreme agenda ... that doesn’t fit San Diego at all.”
Meanwhile Williams accuses her opponents of hyper-focusing on partisan issues that are not directly related to the school district in order to scare voters and of distorting facts about her in order to win.
Williams, a curriculum company manager whose children who are not yet school age, is one of several conservative parent school board candidates who were motivated to run by frustration with pandemic school closures, enforcement of school mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and the way districts like San Diego Unified are teaching ethnic studies and pursuing education equity.
“It just turned into a bloodbath and free-for-all of partisan politics at the end, which is their strategy for winning. I understand it, but I think it’s just unfortunate,” Williams said. “It’s hard to talk about anything without being labeled.”
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The major players
The spending, mailers and ads fueling much of the battle between Petterson and Williams are coming from just two political action committees: the San Diego Unified teachers union PAC and a lesser-known PAC with close Republican ties.
The San Diego Education Assn. has historically been the biggest spender in the district’s school board races and has backed every winning candidate for at least the last 10 years.
The vast majority of the union PAC’s money comes from the California Teachers Assn.’s PAC, which has spent $4.6 million statewide from January to October this year, according to state filings. The San Diego committee has also received tens of thousands of dollars from fellow labor groups including the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council and Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
The teachers union’s close ties with school board members and construction unions has been a frequent source of controversy. The main PAC opposing Petterson, who is endorsed by the teachers union and several current San Diego Unified School Board trustees, has portrayed him on mailers as a pawn and puppet of “special interests,” while portraying Williams as a “change candidate” who is “not beholden to the special interest groups.”
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Williams and some other conservatives argue it’s a conflict of interest for teachers unions to back candidates on the school board, because the board approves pay, benefits and working conditions for the union’s members. The trade unions that fund the teachers union’s PAC also benefit, Williams said, because the board’s school bond program funds dozens of school construction projects that can employ their workers.
“These are corrupt systems that are designed to benefit people, and it’s actually a political club,” Williams said.
The union, meanwhile, has long said that its campaign support of school board members does not influence the trustees, and the union merely supports candidates who already share its values.
As of Thursday, the San Diego teachers union’s PAC has raised at least $356,520 year-to-date, according to county filings. It has spent at least $162,240 of that on mailers and digital ads in support of Petterson and $91,000 more on paraphernalia opposing Williams. Such independent expenditures are made by PACs without direction from the candidates.
On the other side of the race and supporting Williams is a 4-year-old committee called Community Leadership Coalition that has funded the county Republican Party and has also made independent expenditures for Williams, county assessor candidate Jordan Marks and San Dieguito school board candidate Phan Anderson.
The PAC was previously sponsored by the local Lincoln Club, an organization that says it advocates for businesses and taxpayers. The PAC is run by Francis Barraza, who is the former head of the county Republican Party and past campaign manager for former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and who is now listed as Councilmember Chris Cate’s chief of staff. Barraza did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The coalition has received funding from a variety of business and real estate groups, including Associated General Contractors, the Building Industry Assn., export businesses and organizations representing rental property investors and mobile home park owners, according to the coalition’s campaign filings.
Williams said it was after she spoke with Associated General Contractors’ local chapter that she adopted as part of her policy platform a proposal to eliminate a district agreement that requires building contractors to follow union standards — something the general contractors group opposes, she said.
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As the days have counted down to election day, both sides have launched accusations at each other.
One of those came Wednesday from Rottenstreich, who issued a press release detailing how one of Community Leadership Coalition’s largest donors is Adriana Camberos, a local who was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison for her alleged role in a bogus 5-hour Energy bottle scheme. Camberos was freed early from prison thanks to a controversial commutation from former President Trump.
“I just think that’s nuts there is a convicted felon who got a commutation from Donald Trump pumping money into electing a San Diego school board member,” Rottenstreich said. “That is outrageous.”
Williams said she “has no idea” who Camberos is, and she noted Camberos’ contribution could have been intended for a different candidate who is also supported by the Community Leadership Coalition.
The coalition has raised at least $380,000 year-to-date and spent $54,761 of that in support of Williams, plus $59,761 more against Petterson, according to county filings.
Separate from independent expenditures made by PACs, Williams has out-raised and out-spent Petterson in her own campaign, according to county filings. Williams has raised $88,770 and spent $107,482, while Petterson has raised $41,940 and spent $35,416.
Abortion, religion, vouchers
Petterson and the teachers union said they have been determined to expose to voters Williams’ Republican-leaning views.
“If voters actually know who my opponent is, they won’t vote for her,” Petterson said.
For example, Petterson has written about how Williams is one of more than 80 California political candidates who have signed a “Families First” pledge by the Christian website Biblical Voter. Candidates who sign the pledge promise to “protect innocent human life from conception to natural death,” “defend the natural family and natural marriage” and “restore the natural right of parents to determine the best way to educate, raise and care for their children.”
Petterson, who is endorsed by Planned Parenthood and says he supports reproductive rights, accused Williams of “deeply” religious conservatism and suggested that a school board candidate’s views on abortion and religion are inseparable from how they would govern a school district.
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“The question of access to age-appropriate reproductive information, facilitating access to health- and life-protective reproductive resources, and fostering an environment that is supportive of young women’s reproductive decisions is ABSOLUTELY one that is relevant to a school board and to a school board election,” Petterson wrote in a public post on his Facebook profile.
Williams has declined to answer questions from the Union-Tribune about her views related to abortion, saying they aren’t relevant to a position on the school board.
“For those of you who are his friends it would probably be good to point out kindly that it’s not healthy to persecute people based on religious beliefs,” Williams wrote in a comment on Petterson’s Facebook post. “I stand by everything I said, which is that school boards should get back to focusing on their stated missions and not focus on things like this.”
Petterson and the SDEA have also criticized Williams for her stance on vouchers, which are essentially state-funded scholarships for students to attend private and religious K-12 schools rather than public schools. School vouchers are not legal in California and have faced small chances of being allowed here by a liberal-leaning voter population.
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Teachers unions and allies have staunchly opposed the idea of vouchers, saying they are a vehicle for destroying public schools by diverting public funding from them.
“It is the goal of vouchers to undermine public education. These are ultimately people that are not committed to public education,” Petterson said.
Williams said she agrees with the idea of private school vouchers because she thinks families should have more choice in where their kids attend school. Public dollars should “follow the child,” she said, especially if children are not getting a good education or being treated well at their traditional public schools. Williams argues they were not when school districts kept schools closed to in-person learning for prolonged periods earlier in the pandemic.
“If you were unwilling and unable to offer someone an education and someone else is, the voucher fixes that pretty quickly,” she said.
Unlike Petterson, Williams’ strategy has been to avoid talking about partisan issues. In campaign text messages to voters, she has depicted herself as an underdog, calling the teachers union a “corrupt special interest group now spending over $253,000 to beat up on me.”
Williams said others have mischaracterized and spread inaccuracies about her. For example, she said she has been wrongly labeled anti-vaccine; she said she doesn’t oppose vaccines but rather believes school districts lack the authority to require students to be vaccinated, like San Diego Unified once did.
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Williams, through her attorney, told the union to cease distributing mailers that said she “just moved here” to San Diego from Texas; Williams actually moved here from Washington, D.C., after earlier having lived in Texas. She also said she is filing a complaint with the state about one union mailer that does not include a required disclosure saying it was paid for by the teachers union; Rottenstreich said that was due to an error by the mailer vendor.
Regarding the Texas issue, Rottenstreich said his organization’s mailer is not inaccurate.
“Becca Williams and her team of lawyers want to bully us and hide the truth from San Diego voters, and we’re not gonna let them do that,” Rottenstreich said. “Her Republican, right-wing politics are so extreme that she knows she cannot get elected to the school board unless she stops us from telling the truth about her.”
Williams said she doesn’t expect to win now because her opponents have highlighted partisan policy positions. But she said she is still proud that she spoke up about her policy positions that are not popular.
“I knew from the beginning that I would have zero chance if this turns into a partisan race, which is what they have done,” Williams said.
The deadline to vote in person or turn in mail ballots is Tuesday at 8 p.m.
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