Silicon Valley donations to school board races may be capped
Nearly 100 attendees gathered on election night in support of Santa Clara Unified School District board candidates. Photo courtesy of Andrew Ratermann.

    As more eyes turn to local school board seats, one newly-introduced bill takes a closer look at campaign finances for those races.

    California Senate Bill 328 holds school board races to the same standards as other local and state congressional races, limiting individual campaign contributions to $5,500. School board races currently have no donation caps. The bill, introduced last week, will apply to community colleges and other special districts. Education officials said while candidates historically raise little money, the bill highlights the increasing attention given to local school boards.

    Martin Carnoy, an education economics professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, said the bill prevents wealthier candidates from relying on their own deep pockets and donor networks to win. The law would level the playing field for grassroots campaigns.

    School board members are responsible for spending millions in funding, addressing teacher working conditions and making decisions on curriculum. Within the last few years, Carnoy said school board races have been caught up in a wave of politicalization. Nationwide, political organizations are pouring money into local school board races in an attempt to affect education policy, he added. Last November, local conservative organizations provided support and training to school board candidates in districts across Santa Clara County.

    “The idea here is to prevent some political groups from deciding to go after a school board to change the content of what’s being taught in the schools,” Carnoy told San José Spotlight.

    Even with this shift, Carnoy said most races still consist of yard signs and conversations with people in their neighborhoods.

    Campbell Union High School District board member James Kim said his heftiest expenditure as a first-time candidate was paying for a ballot statement. The electrical engineer and parent successfully ran against incumbent Robert Varich, who served one term before being ousted, last November.

    “The highest donation I got from a single contributor was $1,500,” Kim told San José Spotlight. “The average was probably closer to $50.”

    East Side Union High School District board member J. Manuel Herrera said not all school board races are small. His district, which serves more than 21,000 students, holds at-large elections. The candidates need to reach voters across the district instead of one specific area. That means campaign expenses add up, he said.

    “Our boundaries encompass half of the city of San Jose,” Herrera told San José Spotlight. “We literally have about half a million people who live here.”

    Herrera said school board races are often a launching point for a political career. In Santa Clara County, school board members have gone on to become city councilmembers, county supervisors and county Board of Education members.

    Kim said following the money goes beyond election season. New legislation, including SB 1439, would take a closer look at contributions that potentially affect decisions made by an elected official and pay to play behavior. He said SB 328 means that school board races continue to focus on students and residents.

    “All money going to campaigns is not money going to actually improving education,” Kim told San José Spotlight.

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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