The March 3 primary will determine whether the Orange County Board of Education remains controlled by a conservative majority or heads in a new direction, with nine candidates vying for three open seats.
The board provides fiscal oversight for the county’s education department. It also handles appeals for expelled students and for charter school applications shot down by local school districts, and it oversees schooling for at-risk students.
Board members are elected to four-year terms to represent one of five geographical districts in the county, just like the Board of Supervisors. Only two seats were due to be open this cycle, but 15-year board veteran John “Jack” Bedell opted not to run for reelection out of frustration with the board’s current direction.
Bedell is now in the minority on the board, along with incumbent Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez. They voted against the board’s decision, for example, to sue Superintendent Al Mijares over who has final approval of the agency’s $250 million budget — a battle that’s left the county without a state-approved budget for months.
To shift that majority, Gomez first would need to win reelection to her 1st District seat. Then, challengers would have to take Bedell’s 4th District seat and oust six-term incumbent Ken Williams in the 3rd District, since both seats not up for reelection this cycle are held by conservatives who currently form a majority with Williams.
This race will be decided on March 3.
There are only two candidates in the race for the 3rd District seat now held by Williams, who represents eastern Orange County, from Yorba Linda south to Lake Forest and west to Irvine.
Williams is facing nonprofit director Andy Thorburn, a Democrat who came in fourth during a 2018 bid for the 39th House seat.
Williams, 61, is a physician from Lake Forest who specializes in hair restoration surgery. He’s been a reserve Sheriff’s deputy since 2004, has three grown sons and does medical missionary work.
In his 24 years on the education board, Williams has led the charge to promote charter school options while opposing programs such as affirmative action, Common Core standards and the state’s 2016 sex education law that requires middle and high schools to include information about HIV prevention and address the needs of LGBTQ students.
“I always have stood for more local control of education decision making rather than government mandates and big government programs,” Williams said.
Williams is running for reelection on a slate with Gomez challenger Jim Palmer and Tim Shaw, who’s trying to get Bedell’s seat. The three men are billing themselves as the “conservative pro-family candidates,” and they have backing from the Republican Party of Orange County.
Thorburn has the support of the Democratic Party of Orange County, which hopes to elect more Democrats to local offices in 2020.
Thorburn, 77, was a high school teacher in New Jersey before founding his own insurance company and moving to Orange County — job experience he argues gives him unique insight into both managing classrooms and managing big budgets. He now lives in Villa Park, where he serves on two nonprofit boards.
If elected, Thorburn wants to see renewed focus on vocational education and more attention on mental health services plus music, arts programs and after-school programs.
“I believe we need to work with business to double down on job training that gives our young people access to great careers,” he said.
In central OC’s 1st District — which covers Fountain Valley and Santa Ana along with portions of Garden Grove and Tustin — incumbent Gomez is facing two challengers.
Gomez, 64, a former Tustin City Council member who’s long been active in Tustin community groups and school issues, is supported by the Democratic party.
On the board, Gomez has advocated for increased training for teachers, local control for school districts and more transparency in board decisions. If reelected, she wants to cut board spending on outside consultants and attorneys so that money can be directed back to classrooms.
Gomez’s primary challenger is Palmer, the longtime director of the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin. Palmer, 55, is also a former Tustin City Council member and current chairman of the board for the Hurtt Family Health Clinics.
Palmer is pushing to boost graduation rates, enhance transparency and eliminate wasteful spending. He said he’s not happy about the taxpayer-funded lawsuit with Mijares and wants to see politics taken out of education.
“I believe that the education of our children should not be a partisan challenge.”
Also in the race is eccentric activist Steve Rocco, who doesn’t appear to be campaigning and couldn’t be reached for comment. After a similarly nonexistent campaign season in 2004, Rocco won a term on the Orange Unified School District board, which ended up censuring him.
There’s no incumbent in the 4th District race to represent north central OC, which includes Buena Park, Fullerton, La Habra, Placentia and portions of Anaheim. That leaves the field open.
Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman, 39, nabbed early endorsements from Mijares and Bedell. He’s a Democrat who served on the Anaheim Union High School District board and eyed a 2016 congressional run. If elected, Brandman wants to adopt a department budget. He’ll also focus on expanding career technical education, boosting after school programs and reducing class sizes.
At-risk youth counselor Vicki Calhoun, who has a doctorate in education and has sung background vocals for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others, lost a 2018 bid for Fullerton City Council. She wants to push for more classroom tutors, school counselors and local control of tax dollars.
Challenger Paulette Chaffee of Fullerton is an attorney and a former classroom teacher and speech therapist. Chaffee says she would focus on boosting STEAM programs, more workforce readiness programs, enhanced mental health services, more anti-bullying programs, and modernizing classrooms. She’s promising to “bring a full-time commitment to a part-time position.”
The only Republican in the District 4 race is La Habra City Councilman Tim Shaw, who last year narrowly lost a bid for county supervisor to Paulette Chaffee’s husband, Doug Chaffee. Shaw, 42, is a professor and spokesman for a realtor association. He supports charter school options and vocational education. He said he stands with the school board on the lawsuit with Mijares, but also wants to get politics out of the classroom and bring the focus back to education.
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