A race with two twists
Unusual candidacies make the Butte County Board of Education race unusually interesting
School board elections are usually ho-hum affairs, but the contest for three seats on the Butte County Board of Education has a couple of unusual twists.
One of those twists involves candidate Amy Christianson, 44, a Chico resident who is chief operating officer at a small Oroville-based education-consultancy firm called Beacon Services. The company’s CEO, Mike Walsh, was elected to the board two years ago to represent the Oroville area, which means that, if Christianson is elected, Beacon will have two of its principals on the seven-member board—which has some observers concerned.
All three Chico seats, which are in Trustee Area 1, are up for grabs this election. Two of the candidates, Bob Purvis and Roger Steel, currently sit on the board. Purvis, 69, the board president, is a retired school superintendent who has been on the board for 16 years. Steel, who’s 63, was appointed to the board in July 2011 to replace Pat Speer. He too is a retired educator, having worked for 35 years as a teacher, principal and superintendent.
Also running—this is the second twist—is Ryne Ladd Johnson, 49, a Chico native and business-management consultant who wants to continue a family tradition of serving on the board. His father, Ladd Johnson, a retired Chico State professor and current board member, is stepping down after 12 years. Ladd originally was appointed to replace his wife, Barbara Johnson, also a Chico State professor, when she died. If elected, Ryne Johnson will be the third member of the Johnson family to sit on the county Board of Education.
You can go to the League of Women Voters’ very helpful website at www.smartvoter.org to learn more about the candidates’ qualifications and positions on issues. Type in your address and zip code to access information on all the candidates and measures on your ballot.
The Butte County Office of Education is an intermediate liaison between the state of California and local school districts, which it monitors and assists in making their budgets. It also is the appeal agency for charter schools disapproved by local school boards. In addition, it operates several educational programs, including special, migrant and Indian education, the Regional Occupational Program and the county Juvenile Hall school.
The BCOE has a history of long-term, non-partisan, practical-minded board members, and the two incumbents, Purvis and Steel, are touting their experience as effective board members.
Johnson is positioning himself as a management expert who will fight for public schools and against what he sees as at movement toward greater privatization of the schools by way of charters. In too many cases, he says, charters are skimming off the best students and leaving the public schools to educate the English learners and special-needs children.
A graduate of Chico schools, he has a BA with honors in economics from UCLA and a master’s in government administration with honors from the University of Pennsylvania.
Christianson cites her work on such statewide groups as the Department of Education’s After School Advisory Committee and her 20 years of experience in the education field. She worked for the Chico school district for five years and BCOE for 10.
One of her goals, she said, is to get more involved on the state level so that Sacramento understands the challenges rural schools face.
Christianson graduated from Chico State with a BA in liberal arts. She recently obtained a master’s degree in teaching and learning with technology from the for-profit online Ashford University. The school has come under fire following an audit by the U.S. Department of Education that found misuse of federal student aid. It also failed to earn accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Christianson defends Ashford, saying that because she was a serious student, she got a lot out of the program. “There was rigor and it was relevant and my teachers were very engaged,” she insisted.
Don McNelis, the longtime former BCOE superintendent who retired earlier this year, said Christianson and Walsh would have no legal conflict of interest if they ended up on the board together. He added, though, that “one of the values of any board is that people arrive at decisions independently. That’s not to say that Mike and Amy wouldn’t, but some people may question their decisions.”
Elected officials have to consider two basic standards, he continued. One is the matter of legal conflicts; the other is the appearance of conflict. His rule, he said, is that “if someone thinks you could have a conflict of interest, you should walk away.” McNelis has endorsed Johnson.
For his part, Steel said having both Walsh and Christianson on the board “raises a lot of red flags” and could be “awkward” for them. He was hesitant to say more because, like all the candidates, he signed a pledge to avoid negativity.
Christianson doesn’t see it that way, of course. She and Walsh don’t always agree with each other, she said, and in fact they cultivate honest disagreement as something beneficial in making decisions. “We have different perspectives and skill sets,” she said. “We agree to disagree and have done so many times over the years.”
Purvis noted that Christianson has openly acknowledged that she has her eyes on higher office. “There’s nothing illegal about trying to use the BCOE as a political stepping stone,” he said, but “[w]e don’t have party politics at the Board of Education.”
Yes, she’s interested in one day seeking higher office, Christianson said. She wants to be of service and loves politics. A few years ago, when she mentioned her desire to Bob Linscheid, the Chico-based economic-development guru and state university trustee, he advised her to get her feet wet with a local office, and that’s what she’s doing.
That would make her the first county Board of Education member known to harbor such ambitions, however.
BCOE Superintendent Tim Taylor notes that the board has benefited over the years from its members’ willingness to stick around for many years and the fact that they’ve all been practical, non-ideological people.
Christianson promises that, should she win, she will practice strictly non-partisan leadership.