Another look at the Sacramento City school board races

Bites looks at contests in south and East Sacramento

There have been too many personal and political agendas at work on the Sacramento City school board. We need a board that better represents the neighborhood public-schools agenda.

Especially in Area 7—representing south Sacramento, Hollywood Park and Oak Park. Area 7 has some of the lowest voter-participation rates in all of Sacramento County. No coincidence that this area was hit hard by the district’s mass school closures last year.

Candidate Linda Tuttle was a teacher in the SCUSD for two decades, and she spent eight years as president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. The teachers union is a boogeyman to some. Well, mostly The Sacramento Bee. But Tuttle says she “can bring teachers on board in partnerships with the district, which hasn’t been happening.”

In fact, Sac City schools have lately seemed like a front in the ideological “teacher wars” over tenure, layoffs, charters schools and school closures.

While Tuttle is likely to be an ally for the teachers union on these issues, she almost didn’t get their endorsement.

It almost went to Jonathan Tran, one of the leaders of the group Hmong Innovating Politics, who worked with south Sacramento neighborhoods to oppose school closures last year. Tran also fought against the “California Office of Reform of Education” or CORE. Former Superintendent Jonathan Raymond was advancing his own education-reform agenda—including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores—when he had the district join CORE, without a vote of the school board.

It was one of several bitter conflicts during the Raymond’s tenure, which the school board couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. “The constant fighting going on within the district is pretty tiresome. I think citizens are ready for someone to step in and do some actual work,” says Tran.

The third serious candidate is Jessie Ryan, who works with a nonprofit called the Campaign for College Opportunity. Ryan is supported by the California Charter Schools Association, which says in its pitch to voters that “Jessie is firmly in the charter school camp.” The association has also made independent expenditures to pay for campaign mailers for Ryan.

Good charters can be an important part of a school district’s portfolio. But there’s no doubt that the rapid expansion of charter schools in Sac City has hurt enrollment and drained resources from neighborhood public schools.

(The usual disclosure: I’m married to a Sac City teacher, have kids in the district and generally hope public schools will survive.)

Ryan is also getting support from former school board members Jay Schenirer and Patrick Kennedy. Those guys are definite red flags, and examples of the kind of backroom dealing and personal agendas that have been too common on this school board.

Moving from south Sacramento to East Sacramento, and the Area 2 race between incumbent Jeff Cuneo and challenger Ellen Cochrane.

Cuneo is also backed by the charter-schools association, but says charter schools are a “case-by-case” proposition. “I don’t want to charter the public school system.”

Four years ago, Cuneo ran for school board on the promise of bringing a comprehensive high school back to East Sacramento. The neighborhood lost its high school when Sacramento High was given to St. HOPE charter schools (by Schenirer) more than a decade ago.

Cuneo managed to bring a small International Baccalaureate high-school program to the area. But his opponent, Ellen Cochrane, says that’s far short of having a school with the full menu of curriculum for English learners, special-ed students or those who don’t have the grades, or the desire, to join an IB program. She says Cuneo “gave up.”

“East Sacramento still doesn’t have a high school. I’m not willing to give up.”

Cochrane is supported by the teacher’s union and is also a teacher at a south Sacramento middle school on the edge of the Elk Grove school district. “My first and foremost thought is for public schools, not charter schools,” said Cochrane.

Cuneo acknowledges some major problems with the school-closure process, though he still says it was the right policy. He says he regrets not having a better relationship with the leaders of the teachers union. His desire to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores is bad policy and won’t help.

But unlike some school-board members, Cuneo seems motivated by his beliefs for what’s best for schools, not the advancement of his personal business or political career. Bites could be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Cochrane echoes the concerns of several challengers when she says she’s “really concerned about the communication between teachers, parents and the school board. It hasn’t been happening.”

It hasn’t. But Bites thinks either candidate in Area 2 could help fix that.