Over the past few weeks, the glossy flyers trickled in by mail.
Residents of Santa Clara County School Board Trustee Area 5—which includes Milpitas, Berryessa, and Santa Clara—received three different attack ads denouncing incumbent candidate Anna E. Song. One, with a darkened, distorted photograph, claimed she squandered millions of local tax dollars—through a decision the entire board made.
Another poses “So What?” in big letters, a quote the ad said Song made in opposition to the renewal of Los Altos-based Bullis Charter School’s charter in 2011. “Isn’t it time for change?” the ad asks, encouraging readers to vote for candidate David J. Neighbors instead. Voters also received one glowing ad devoted to Neighbors.
“I’ve lived in Santa Clara for 23 years, and I’ve never ever seen anything like this before,” said Dr. Christine Koltermann, a Trustee for the District who lives in Area 5. “People here don’t have a lot of money to fund these campaigns.”
The group backing the ads, the Santa Clara County Schools PAC (Political Action Committee), is financed almost exclusively by groups and individuals that sit outside of Trustee Area 5, including its founder, who lives in Canada. The main funders are Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs' widow; the California Charter School Association, of which Bullis Charter School is a member; Reed Hastings; and John Fischer, according to a filing document from the Registrar of Voters office in San Jose. It became public record on Friday, the day after it was officially filed.
Santa Clara County School PAC's principal officer is Alicia Gallegos Fambrini, who was hired by the San Jose Charter School Consortium, which is part of the California Charter School Association.
Often a county Board of Education election is a sleepy affair, a race that slips unnoticed by all but the most devout local education politicos. But Song and her supporters say the Santa Clara County Schools PAC is seeking to change that through a smear campaign backed by special interests who are not part of Trustee Area 5.
“People who do not live here, vote here, pay taxes here, or send their children to school here are attempting to control who represents the people here,” said Dr. Koltermann.
Song said the now-infamous “So What?” quote and other information in the ads is blown out of proportion. The Bullis Charter School received a high API score, which Song had said was to be expected, given the high socioeconomic status of the parents who send their students to the school in Los Altos.
“It’s not even close to accurate that I don’t care about high-achieving schools,” said Song, who expressed the opinion at a county school board meeting in September 2011. , and the question of how much outreach to the less-advantaged, Hispanic English language learners in the charter's school's territory in Mountain View was raised. The school was asked to provide a plan for outreach as a result. Some parents in the Los Altos School District had applauded the process that resulted in BCS' to do more outreach to disadvantaged students in the district.
“Just because they scored high on the report, I asked what else they’re doing,” Song said. . Both Song and county board president Joseph Di Salvo said then that charter schools, as public schools, must serve a larger community.
“To take that comment and purport that Anna doesn’t care is false and misleading. It also has nothing to do with Trustee Area 5,” said Dr. Ina Bendis, a Santa Clara resident and Board of Trustees member, pointing out that it was said in relation to a charter school renewal that took place in Trustee Area 1, which covers Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto and Mountain View.
Indeed, one of the mailers features a large-type quote from Ron Haley, a Bullis Charter School parent from Los Altos Hills known for his incendiary comments related to the long-running Bullis Charter School-Los Altos School district disputes.
In August, the Santa Clara County Schools PAC was founded by two political consultants: Jay Rosenthal, the founder of JMR Strategic who divides his time between working in San Francisco and Ontario, Canada, and San Jose-based Jude Barry, the CEO of Catapult Strategies and former advisor to Fortune 500 Companies and the San Francisco 49ers. He was also the well-known the political strategist who engineered the rapid rise of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales. The PAC hired a political treasurer based out of Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento.
Both said they felt that Trustee Area 5’s race has broad implications for the rest of Santa Clara County’s education system. As there are only seven Board Member slots Santa Clara County-wide, said Rosenthal, each carries great weight in County-wide decision making.
“These are really important races that we wanted to have a strong voice,” said Rosenthal, who designed the flyers against Song. “We support candidates that are fiscally responsible and great board members. Many people felt that what Song said ['So what?'] was an inappropropriate comment.”
The fiscal matter raised by the PAC, was the 2008 board decision to give then-Superintendent Charles Weis a low-interest, no-downpayment home loan of $915,000 to purchase a luxury condominium in San Jose. The condo lost value by the time Weis retired last spring and the ex-superintendent asked the board to take it back, effectively handing the county board a property that is underwater.
The PAC has also designed ads for Trustee Area 1, backing candidate Grace Mah, who they feel has been a consistent supporter of education reform, Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal chose to support Mah despite her also voting against the renewal of the Bullis Charter School charter with Song in the 5-2 decision last year, however, pointing out she still has a strong track record. Mah was also a strong backer of Superintendent Weis. The entire board voted on the superintendent's contract that allowed Weis to return the property to the board without payment.
Some community members feel there should be an ethics code enforcing better behavior in local political campaigning.
“This really diminishes the community,” said Koltermann. “Would we want students to conduct meetings like the adults here?”
Anna Song has not responded the Santa Clara County Schools PAC. She has a different strategy, she said.
“I plan on staying positive and getting my positive message out,” said Song.
—Los Altos Patch Editor L.A. Chung contributed to this report