Over the past few weeks, the glossy fliers 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 Song. One, with a darkened, distorted photograph, claimed she squandered millions of local tax dollars.
Another poses a “So What?” in big letters, a quote the ad states Song said in opposition to the Los Altos Bullis Charter School’s renewal. “Isn’t it time for change?” the ad asks, encouraging readers to vote for candidate David 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. 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 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 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 said was to be expected given the high socioeconomic status of the parents who send their students to the school.
“It’s not even close to accurate that I don’t care about high-achieving schools,” said Song, who expressed the opinion at a school board meeting in September. “Just because they scored high on the report, I asked what else they’re doing.”
“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 meeting that took place in Trustee Area 1.
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. They hired a political treasurer based out of Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento.
Both felt that Trustee Area 5’s race has broad implications for the rest of Santa Clara County’s education system. The Santa Clara County School Board District only has seven board members, said Rosenthal, making each of their county-wide votes all the more important, especially since the county has a growing number of charter schools.
“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 PAC has also designed ads for Trustee Area 1, the only other Area in Santa Clara County that is holding elections for board members. They backed candidate Grace Mah, who they feel has been a consistent supporter of school reform, said Rosenthal.
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?”
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.