Jeff Clemetson | Editor
[Editor’s note: Election coverage in La Mesa Courier does not constitute an endorsement. The Courier, like all newspapers in the San Diego Community Newspaper Network, does not endorse political campaigns.]
Election season has officially begun and races for local public office are now underway.
One such race is for three seats on the La Mesa Spring Valley School District (LMSVSD) board. And while not as headline grabbing as other local elections — such as the fight for the now legally embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter’s Congressional seat — this school board election has a bit of drama of its own.
Three incumbent board members have decided not to run for their seats.
Bob Duff, who served on the board for 14 years, announced he was retiring earlier this year. Rebekah Basson, appointed to the board a year ago after Rick Winet vacated the position, is an expecting parent and decided to focus on her family. Board president David Chong, who served on the board for four years, announced he will not seek re-election earlier this month, citing a recent home purchase and move that puts him out of the district in December.
“I am currently eligible to seek re-election and am eager to continue serving, but I feel it would be disingenuous to ask the public for their vote when I know I would have to resign due to residency shortly after being re-elected,” Chong said.
The departure of Chong and Basson from the race was welcomed news to a local community group called the Action Community for Educators and Students (ACES). The group formed in the wake of disparaging statements made by Chong, a gun store owner, about student gun control activists from Parkland High School in Florida, following a mass shooting there.
On Aug. 19, the ACES group members met at Helix Brewing Co. to start organizing a campaign for a slate of candidates who will no longer face the incumbents the group initially formed to defeat.
“The circumstances changed a bit,” said ACES member Emily Green. “We decided to just focus on putting out a positive message for the candidates that we did want to endorse.”
Green said the candidates — Jerry Lecko, Charda Fontenot and Rebecca McRae — as well as all the ACES members met at LMSVSD meetings while protesting Chong’s statements, as well as the appointment of Basson to the board, which ACES opposed because they claim she lacks experience. Basson had never served on a board, does not have children in the district and mostly attended private schools growing up.
The Basson appointment spurred Lecko to run for the board. This is his second campaign for school board. He briefly served on the board after being appointed there in 2013. Lecko said he lost his race to hold the seat in 2014 because he “ran afoul of the Republican Party.”
“Because I wouldn’t lockstep with the Republicans in 2014, they decided not to endorse me,” he said. “They put a target on my back and they wanted me off the board because they wanted to retain party control and it had nothing to do with the community.”
Lecko — whose credentials, besides serving on the LMSVSD board, include stints as Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) president, chair of the district advisory council and chair of the Prop M citizen’s bond oversight committee — believes Basson’s appointment was a partisan political move to give a new face in the conservative movement some experience and exposure, while passing up much more qualified candidates for the position.
“That was a slap in the face to the community, I believe, as well as a disappointment to the school district staff and parents,” Lecko said. “And the students didn’t know it, but it was a slap in the face to them.”
Lecko left the Republican Party two years ago and is now an Independent.
“The idea that the other side is automatically evil or the enemy does not sit well for me,” he said, adding that leadership on both sides are guilty.
Although the ACES group’s majority is progressive Democrat, Lecko said he believes they are open-minded enough to endorse a long time Republican like himself — a quality he wants to bring to the school board.
“A good idea is a good idea,” he said. “I don’t care whose mouth it comes out of or what side of the isle it comes from. It should be considered, it should be debated, it should be compromised so that the final outcome is a win-win that everybody can get behind.”
To Lecko, a group like ACES is a sign that change can happen without party politics.
“It’s an indication that the electorate wants to be informed,” he said. “People that have formed this grass-roots community parent-oriented group want to see some change in our school district.”
Fellow candidate Charda Fontenot is optimistic about her chances of winning because of the support from the ACES group as well as the timing of the election.
“We have a new superintendent, we have new leadership and so I think with that combination of those two things and the election happening, we will see some positive change,” she said.
Fontenot is a certified lactation educator and mother of two children attending Casa de Oro Elementary. She served on the PTA and District Advisory Council and said she was encouraged to run by teachers and has made supporting teachers part of her message.
“Right now, I don’t think [the board members] are really listening to the teachers,” she said.
“I want to do better for the community. I want to involve parents in the decisions that are being made. I want to involve teachers involved in the decisions that are being made.”
The third ACES slate candidate, Rebecca McRae, has also made parent and teacher involvement a focus of her campaign.
“I think that a district works best for everyone when the board can listen to all stakeholders. If we’re not listening to all the stakeholders, then are we really providing what is best for all students?” she said. “Sometimes the board will listen to the loud parents who are complaining about things, but I think that as board members we need to put ourselves out there and be comfortable talking to and listening to everyone in order to make the best decisions.”
McRae is a teacher at Clay Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District, but has daughters attending school in the La Mesa Spring Valley district.
“I want to make a change so our school board represents all of the community and not just part of the community,” she continued. “Education is my passion … and it’s important to me that my girls are going to a school where the school board has everybody’s interests in mind.”
McRae is also positive about her chances of winning, although she is aware of the historically dim chances candidates have of winning school board elections without the backing of the Republican Party.
“It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in East County where people just assume that everyone else around them is conservative or people just write it off like, ‘It’s East County, what else is new?’ so nobody tries,” she said. “However, I think since the 2016 election, people are more aware now about who is representing them, even down to the local level.”
For the ACES candidates and organizers, Chong and Basson’s departure from the race is only a partial relief.
“Now we need to make sure we get the right people on the school board,” Emily Green said. “We can’t have more of the same. So even though we don’t have the incumbents running, we have people that we have our doubts about.”
The people that they have doubts about are a slate of candidates, including Steve Babbitt. He is a former LMSVSD board member and has also served on a myriad of other local education-related boards and committees, such as the Prop M Citizen’s Bond Oversight Committee, La Mesa-Spring Valley Educational Foundation, Spring Valley Youth and Family Coalition, Spring Valley Sheriff’s Community Advisory Board, and more.
Babbitt’s slate includes Megan Epperson, who is a parent of LMSVSD students, and local businesswoman Brianna Garza. Babbitt has already racked up endorsements from local Republican elected officials such as Dianne Jacob, La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, and most of the current LMSVSD board members, including board president Chong.
For the ACES candidates, an endorsement from the teachers’ union is “likely,” according to Green, making this race very similar to previous ones where union-backed candidates face off against an entrenched GOP establishment. However, there are signs that this race will be less acrimonious.
“It’s a win for the district no matter who gets elected,” Babbitt said, referencing the qualifications of his opponents on the ACES slate. “Although I do think I’m the most qualified and experienced.”
For more information about the candidates, visit lamesaspringvalleyaces.org, facebook.com/lmsv2018, lecko2018.com, babbittonboard.com, chardafontenot2018.com and Megan Epperson’s Facebook page at bit.ly/2BIG2ps. A seventh candidate, middle school teacher Mathew Austin Sablove, is also running, according the official list of candidates filed with the San Diego Registrar of Voters but is not a part of a slate and does not yet have a campaign website.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org