Despite Not Issues, School Races Stay Cool

Politics: Even with bilingual education and standardized tests, campaigns are not as divisive as in previous years. The Conservative Education Alliance is playing a smaller role.

You’d think the fall of bilingual education and the results of the first statewide exam given in four years would be ample political fodder for the school board campaign trail. But races in 21 Orange County districts have been particularly quiet this election cycle. In fact, five other school districts canceled elections altogether because they lacked enough candidates for a contest. Even the Education Alliance, a conservative group that bolted onto the school board scene four years ago touting a slate of political newcomers favoring a “back-to-basics” approach, is endorsing fewer candidates this year and is raising less money. From the power of incumbency to a paucity of controversy, election watchers have a range of explanations for the inactivity. Laguna Beach school board member Eileen T. Walsh, who is not up for reelection, offered the most obvious theory: “There’s more money this year,” she said. “People are happy.” In past years, elections were dominated by the growth of conservative activism on school boards, fostered by the Education Alliance. The group was formed in 1994 by three friends who supported Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative that failed to win voter approval in 1993. The alliance platform stands for “parental rights and local control.” Specifically, group members oppose state and federal education mandates and teachers unions. In 1996, the alliance endorsed 36 candidates and raised an estimated $ 70,000 to help get them elected. This year, only 24 candidates have the organization’s stamp, and the latest financial disclosure form is expected to show about $ 50,000 in contributions, said Mark Bucher, an alliance co-founder. Organizers said fielding candidates and fund-raising aren’t the main goals. “The biggest thing that we do is help our endorsed candidates run for office,” said founding member Jim Righeimer, a Huntington Beach real estate broker. “Some of these people are newcomers who have no idea how to run a campaign. We teach them about walking precincts, putting out mailers, and we go over some basic political issues.” Critics say the group has garnered a reputation as so polarizing that serious candidates won’t align themselves with the organization. “I think they did have some days of popularity in Orange County,” said Jean Hessburg, executive director of Santa Monica-based People for the American Way, a liberal organization. “But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that they are one of the most anti-public education groups out there. “Once people realize the agenda of groups like that, they reject them,” she said.

* Alliance co-founder Frank Ury is hoping to reclaim the seat on the Saddleback Valley Unified School District board that he lost two years ago. As one of five candidates for two seats, Ury campaigns on the premise that the current school board does not reflect the wishes of parents. As an example, he cites the recent shuffling of principals to different schools that resulted in one resigning. Parents have protested the policy. “This board is so out of touch with the community,” Ury said. But a spokesman for the teachers union, which is spending $ 40,000 on two of Ury’s opponents, said Ury never objected to the policy when he was a school board member. “He’s trying to use that issue and, in my view, blow it way out of proportion,” said George Anderson, past president of the Saddleback Valley Educators Assn. In a few cases, local issues have galvanized residents to challenge incumbents. In Laguna Beach, seven candidates, including three incumbents, are vying for three seats on the school board, which has been frustrated by administrative turnover. A Newport Coast development expected to increase enrollment also has sparked controversy during the campaign. But to some, the attention to local issues is preferable to the divisive politics of the last few elections. “It’s nice that it’s gone back to boring again,” said Elizabeth Parker, a member of the Orange County Board of Education.

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