This election season, West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) school board candidates Tom Panas and Miriam Stephanie Sequeira benefitted from approximately $372,496 in contributions and independent spending—more than three times the amount spent in support of all the other candidates combined. Most of this support came from the California Charter School Association (CCSA) Independent Expenditures Committee and Education Matters’ political action committee (PAC).
Education Matters, an education-focused nonprofit established by local philanthropists Steve and Susan Chamberlin, decided to endorse Panas and Sequeira following a rigorous vetting process in which candidates were asked to respond to a list of questions, including whether or not they are “categorically opposed” to charter schools. Among the candidates’ responses, Panas and Sequiera’s were most supportive of charter schools.
Education Matters Executive Director Julie Wright said via email that the endorsement decision was made by a “community endorsement panel” composed of seven nonprofit and community organization staff, two parents’ organization leaders, two public school teachers, a public school principal, a UC Berkeley student majoring in education, and Wright.
Wright said the panelists were entrusted with the choice “based on the insights of respected leaders in our community.”
Education Matters’ PAC contributed $350,000 to the California Charter School Association Advocates committee this year. In West Contra Costa County, the organization is 2016’s largest local contributor to the school board race. The PAC spent $50,922.81 this year on the race, with Panas and Sequeira each receiving half of that amount.
Wright said that Education Matters is not “pro-charter” or “pro-district” but is “committed to supporting a reality where parents have access to quality schools of any kind, and that includes district, magnet or charter schools.”
Education Matters endorsed Valerie Cuevas and Liz Block for the school board in 2014; both won. The election drew criticism because more than $350,000 was spent by Education Matters and the CCSA in support of Cuevas and Block and in opposition to candidate Madeline Kronenberg.
“We had an endorsement process in the 2014 election, but it was stronger and more transparent this year,” Wright said. “We learned a lot that enabled us to create good clarity and transparency.”
This election cycle, the organization invited all candidates for the school board to apply for up to $10,000 in seed money for their campaigns and the possibility of full endorsement and additional funding later. Those who applied were asked to complete a questionnaire that included questions about fiscal responsibility, social justice and school quality; they were subsequently interviewed by the panel.
The only candidates who did not apply for the funding were Mister Phillips, whose campaign manager said was he was unable to participate in the interview process due to other obligations, and Carlos Taboada, who said he was not interested in seeking Education Matters’ endorsement because they are a “pro-charter organization.”
The panel’s questionnaire asked candidates to state what their “vetting process” would be for charter school petitions and whether or not they are “categorically opposed” to charter schools.
Sequeira’s response, available on Education Matters’ website, said that charter schools must be evaluated based on “how they will benefit or not the education of our children,” and that providing the “best quality education to all children” is her top priority.
Panas’ response said that the school board “should empower our charter school administrator to work with the charter schools they administer to collaborate with district schools on best practices.” He also said he is open to leniency for charter school applications with “minor defects,” provided those defects are later corrected by proper procedure.
Candidates Don Gosney and Antonio Medrano, both of whom criticized charter schools during the campaign, stated in their questionnaires that they would follow their legal obligations as school board members to review and approve charters that comply with California Education Code standards.
Neither received financial support from Education Matters.
Candidate Ayana Kirkland Young, who has voiced limited criticism of charter schools, said she would evaluate such schools based on “whether they are bringing something new to the table.”
She has not received support from Education Matters.
In an interview with Richmond Confidential, Panas said that the panel asked “thought-provoking” questions and that the interview process was “by far the toughest” he’d ever faced.
Sequeira did not respond to inquiry about her experience with Education Matters.
Education Matters announced its panel’s endorsement of Panas and Sequeira in a Sept. 19 press release that stated that both candidates are “invested in advancing excellent outcomes for West Contra Costa students.”
If both Panas and Sequeira win Tuesday’s election, they will join Block and Cuevas as four out of five school board members with an Education Matters endorsement.