FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — MARCH 13, 2013 –
Teachers unions and school reform groups choose sides with their checkbooks in record-setting race –
By Steve Marschke
West Sacramento voters last week elected a teacher to the school board – after a record-setting campaign battle between the two top candidates.
Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, a Southport resident who teaches in the Folsom-Cordova school district, was picked to fill the remaining 18 months or so of a school board term in the local Washington Unified School District. She received 2,794 votes, or 51.2 percent of the ballots cast in the all-mail election on March 5.
Following her was Francisco Castillo, a public affairs executive with the school reform group StudentsFirst.He pulled in 1,425 votes, or 26.1 percent of the vote.
Rounding out the field were Linh Nguyen, with 782 votes (14.3%), Katherine Gales with 258 votes (4.7%) and Nicholas Scott Turney, with 202 votes (3.7%).
The race – even though it was for only a partial school board term – appeared to set some spending records. Castillo approached $60,000 in campaign contributions as the election neared, with notable contributions from charter school advocates and entities connected to StudentsFirst, a school reform group.
At the same time, Kirby-Gonzalez was approaching half that amount – with strong support from area teachers’ unions.
The campaign contribution numbers may go up further as campaigns finish reporting them after the election.
“I think it’s time for us to rally around the candidate who won,” Castillo told the News-Ledger after the ballots were counted. “It’s time to congratulate Sarah, who ran a great campaign.”
“I’m going to continue to stay involved,” he added. “I want to start some kind of parent advocate network in West Sacramento. I want to talk to the business community and see if they will get more involved in education in West Sacramento. We don’t need to be a school board member to implement some of these ideas.”
Kirby-Gonzalez, the winner, will be sworn at Thursday’s board meeting by her father, Auburn city councilman Dr. Bill Kirby, who will visit for the occasion.
What will she try to accomplish from Day One?
“Right away, it’s just about working well with everybody, establishing relationships in town and on the board,” said Kirby-Gonzalez. “My first goal is to make connections.”
As far as policy:
“My biggest focus is always on curriculum, first and foremost,” she said.
The News-Ledger asked Castillo whether the public made its choice based on a perception of him as a “school reform” candidate and her as a “teachers’ union” candidate.
“I think voters made a choice, but this wasn’t about reform voices versus teachers’ unions,” Castillo answered.
“I think he’s right,” Kirby-Gonzalez said after being told of Castillo’s comment. “I talked to hundreds and hundreds of voters. None of them brought up StudentsFirst. We didn’t talk about the opponents, we just talked about us. They wanted to know why I was running.”
Mayor Christopher Cabaldon supported Castillo – as did various city council members, school board members and Yolo County Supervisor Michael McGowan. He agreed that the “teachers versus reformers” characterization didn’t fly among local voters, although similar school board election battles were occurring all over the country.
“I think that (perception) was largely in the minds of mostly-outside pundits,” Cabaldon commented. “Within this community, it was a local election, with the candidates describing their qualifications and not attacking each other. We had a crop of good candidates step forward to run.”
Was Cabaldon shocked by the amount of money in this WUSD campaign?
“Yes and no,” he answered. “As mayor of our city, yes. To say it’s impressive is a vast understatement for a school board race in our community.”
But he said similar battles are now being raged around the country.
Though Castillo lost, Cabaldon said he had confidence in Kirby-Gonzalez.
“Sarah is a very good candidate and she will be a good board member,” he said.
This special election resulted from a citizen’s petition which the mayor had supported, while others decried the election’s cost. Citizens unhappy about how the school board had initially filled the vacant seat called for the election.
Cabaldon said he is pleased at the outcome, despite the fact that the candidate he supported didn’t win.
“The key was that the voters got to make the decision, and the community and district are all better off for having this discussion about the issues in our district,” said Cabaldon.
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