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Latina school board trustee in Tustin puts failed recall bid behind her

Allyson Damikolas at Columbus Tustin Middle School.
Allyson Damikolas at Columbus Tustin Middle School where all three of her children have attended. Damikolas earned a seat on the Tustin Unified School District Board of Education in 2020 and outlasted a recall campaign against her less than a year later.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Before the Tustin Unified School District’s Board of Education adjourned its Feb. 14 meeting, trustee Allyson Damikolas sought to have the last word.

She adjusted the microphone from the dais and spoke out on a recall campaign against her, an effort officially blessed by the Republican Party of Orange County last summer but that failed to turn in any signatures before its Jan. 25 deadline.

“When I ran for school board, I knew there would be a lot to learn,” Damikolas said. “What I did not expect was to be the subject of a campaign of lies and smears under the guise of a recall.”

Tustin school parents, residents and taxpayers also served fellow trustees Lynn Davis and Jonathan Stone. Damikolas faced the longest list of alleged grievances among the “TUSD Three” including the claim that she promulgated critical race theory through ethnic studies at the district.

“The racial subtext seemed obvious given that I’m only the second school board member of Hispanic heritage elected to the Tustin school board in our 50-year history,” she said.

Damikolas is also the first Latina Democrat trustee in an evolving district where Latinos now comprise 47% of the student body population.

“I represented big change here,” she said over coffee one afternoon in Tustin. “My background and upbringing informed my perspectives. I felt that I could represent my area well.”

Long before running for school board in 2020, Damikolas grew up in a bilingual Mexican American household in West Covina. The Muñiz family, of which she is the eldest of four siblings, later moved to Rancho Cucamonga.

“We struggled,” she said. “Early on in my life, I realized education could be a path to a better life.”

A studious Damikolas enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, one of only a handful of Latinos in her class to do so that year. She married and started a family in San Clemente before taking a closer look at Tustin around 2010.

“The schools were good,” said Damikolas, a mother of three, “and I thought it would be a good fit for everyone.”

After making the move, she got involved in her new community. In 2016, Damikolas served on the district’s Special Education Community Advisory Committee. Later, she became PTO president of both Columbus Tustin Middle School and Beckman High School.

Around the same time, the school board voted to switch from at-large to district elections beginning in 2018 to avoid potential litigation. A demand letter from an attorney claimed that it appeared as if the board had never seated a Latino trustee before, a telltale sign of alleged voter disenfranchisement.

It actually had.

In 1985, Gloria Matta Tuchman became the first Latina elected to the board and served through 1994. A Republican and a Santa Ana elementary school teacher, she later rose to prominence when co-authoring Proposition 227, a successful 1998 ballot initiative that ended bilingual education in California schools.

No Latinos followed Tuchman on the board, though, until Damikolas more than a quarter of a century later.

Allyson Damikolas at Columbus Tustin Middle School.
Damikolas at Columbus Tustin Middle School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The reform that preceded her election created five new trustee “areas.” When Area 1, where Damikolas makes her home, came before the ballot for the first time in 2020, she decided to challenge Tammie Bullard, an incumbent who held her seat since 1996.

“One of the reasons I ran for the board was to bring fresh, new ideas,” Damikolas said. “There’s many different needs, wants and interests. I hoped to bring a voice to my community.”

Bordering Santa Ana, Area 1 is home to Title 1 schools with enrollments that traverse city limits. Damikolas ran on a platform of improving student performance and graduation rates. Amid a pandemic, she also hoped to play a role in boosting mental health and nurse staffing levels to provide for greater student access.

Voters entrusted Damikolas with the task; she won election with 49% of the vote, a 10-point margin over Bullard. But within eight months of being sworn in, the new trustee received a recall notice in August.

Signature gatherers took to outposts in Old Towne Tustin. The effort criticized pre-pandemic test scores, especially below-proficiency marks in math and English for students of color. It accused targeted trustees of advancing a “political agenda” through critical race theory embedded in ethnic studies curriculum instead of addressing academic performance.

“A victory here will make it easier for other parents in other school districts to stop the horrible advance of CRT,” said Fred Whitaker, O.C. GOP chairman, in a Sept. 30 call to action. “A loss will only embolden the uber-left to continue their brazen attempt to wrest parental control away from mothers and fathers so they can have unrestricted access to the hearts and minds of our children/students.”

The recall became a footnote in stories that surveyed similar efforts across the country in national magazines as ideologically diverse as the Nation and Reason.

Damikolas arrived to the board after the pandemic began and the district’s elective ethnic studies course was approved, but that didn’t stall efforts against her. A public records request filed by parents yielded an email from Damikolas to former superintendent Gregory Franklin where the trustee offered a suggestion on a bullet-point presentation about ethnic studies.

“The second bullet saying that ‘it is not aligned with CRT’ is slightly inaccurate,” she wrote. “I think it would be more accurate to say that is ‘not the same as CRT’ or something like that.”

The email was presented as evidence of “masking” critical race theory. The university-level academic discipline examining racism in the legal system isn’t taught at Tustin Unified. Ethnic studies is — and Damikolas counts herself among its supporters.

She points to a recent Stanford study of a San Francisco Unified School District’s ninth-grade ethnic studies course that showed positive, lasting impacts on both attendance and graduation rates afterward.

“We did survey the kids that were in our own course,” Damikolas said. “They said it was one of the best classes they had ever been in, regardless of background. When you have ethnic studies classes, especially for kids who are underachieving, it can raise their GPA, improve their chances of going to college and get them more engaged in their learning.”

In the end, the recall’s arguments failed to prove persuasive against any of the so-called “TUSD Three.” Now, Damikolas is looking forward on how best to serve all students through the remainder of her term.

She touts how technology-ready Tustin Unified was at the beginning of the pandemic. After more than a year on the board, the trustee is also proud that the district has added 20 nurses, counselors and mental health professionals.

It has a new superintendent, as well.

Franklin retired at the end of last year. By then, the board hired Dr. Mark Johnson to succeed him.

“Our new superintendent is really looking at closing the achievement gap,” Damikolas said. “With him and two new board members with fresh ideas, we’ve got a shot at making dents in ways that we hadn’t before.”

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