This feature is part of the CN&R’s Oct. 6 Election Issue. For more stories on the 2022 general election click here.
Eileen Robinson has seen a lot change in the Chico Unified School District. She worked 30 years in Chico schools, starting as an instructional aide at Chapman Elementary and finishing in the attendance office at Pleasant Valley High. She got elected to the school board in 2010; she’s serving her third term, seeking a fourth under CUSD’s first trustee-area elections (see info at end of bottom of page).
The greater Chico area has grown considerably over that time. While the district has experienced its share of growing pains, Robinson points to improvements in facilities and labor relations as significant progress. CUSD continues to upgrade school sites under its facilities master plan, funded by bonds approved by the community; employee groups have come together with the board and administrators in “interest-based bargaining” for contracts.
Since the pandemic, though, Robinson has seen a new shift with the school board: politicization. The dynamic isn’t unique to Chico—from debates on Critical Race Theory (CRT) to bans on books in libraries and transgender students in sports, initiated by religious conservatives, school boards nationwide are diving into charged issues. Here, COVID-19 policies sparked division, with vocal citizens rallying around first-term trustee Matt Tennis’ opposition to campus closures.
“Four members of the [five-member] board felt our responsibility was, if there was a mandate about what we were supposed to do, sent down by the state through the health department, we had an obligation to our students and our families and our teachers to follow it,” Robinson said. “The parents, on incomplete information, that came screaming to board meetings didn’t know a lot of the behind the scenes stuff [such as liability insurance issues]….
“Even though we were inundated, email after email, with ‘This study says’ or ‘Haven’t you heard that England does this,’ my job is to trust the structure that exists.”
The split has carried over to the upcoming election.
Logan Wilson, Robinson’s challenger in Trustee Area 5, is one of the three candidates endorsed and promoted by Chico Parents for In-Person Learning, a coalition that advocated for on-site classes—and against at-home or hybrid instruction—during pandemic periods. The group also supports Rebecca Konkin, seeking the open seat in Area 1, and Tennis, one of two at-large incumbents facing off in Area 4.
Despite the common endorsement and their joint appearance at a Sept. 18 event for Chico Parents, the three candidates told the CN&R in interviews that they are running independently, not as a slate. Whether coordinated or not, their campaigns fit a broader statewide pattern of conservatives taking a greater interest in school boards. A California Republican Party effort, Parent Revolt, is (per its website—cagop.org/s/parentrevolt) “focused on recruiting and supporting strong Republican candidates to run for local education offices” because “[p]arents matter, and providing a quality education that’s supportive of children is more important than supporting left-wing groups, special interests and teachers unions.”
Konkin, Tennis and Wilson are also endorsed by the Chico Police Officers’ Association, Sheriff Kory Honea and the Butte County Republican Party. Robinson, incumbent Thomas Lando in Area 4 and Scott Thompson in Area 1 have joint backing, as well, notably from the Chico Unified Teachers Association and the Butte County Democratic Party.
“The politics of this election are so weird,” Lando said. “Like City Council, this is supposed to be nonpartisan, and it’s so frustrating that it isn’t.
“I just want the board to have the skills to talk to the administration and the district office, communicate what we’re doing to the public and make the best-informed decisions we can,” he added. “The fact that it’s gotten political, that’s reflective of something that’s going on nationwide.”
Chico Parents’ endorsees put themselves forward as parents and champions for parents. Robinson noted a video of Wilson’s in which he said, while putting up signs, that he was running because he wanted to get parent representation on the board.
“I texted him and I said, ‘Logan, as far as I know in the history of Chico Unified, there’s never been a board member who wasn’t also a parent,’” Robinson continued. “It’s a buzzword. Yes, you’re on the board, and you may have kids, but you’re on the board because of everybody else’s kids, not yours.
“That’s not what being a board member is about; being a board member is about being a parent to 12,000 kids.”
Tennis, for one, described himself to the CN&R as “an outsider.” He was the dissenting voice and vote on the board during the pandemic; also—as a farmer, business owner and former Sacramento lobbyist—he’s the lone trustee without a background in education. (Lando is a charter school educator; Caitlin Dalby taught middle school science; Kathy Kaiser, not seeking reelection, is a retired Chico State professor.)
“My lead line is always talking about what has happened over the last two years,” Tennis said, “the disastrous COVID shutdown that has materially harmed the children of this community.”
Learning loss weighs heavily on all the candidates’ minds and priorities. Each spoke to how students have fallen behind academically during the pandemic, along with social and emotional impacts. They shared other points of commonality: increasing mental health services, boosting special education and career education programs, continuing with the facilities master plan, supporting charter schools.
But the factions have fundamental differences in other areas.
“I think school needs to become a less politically charged environment,” Tennis said. “It should be a place where children go for the mashed potatoes and gravy, if you will, learning the fundamental communication and problem-solving skills that they’re going to need to compete in an increasingly complex and potentially difficult world.
“There’s a lot of troubled waters out there. People are talking about nuclear war. We’re coming off the Trump era, which was a turbulent, in my opinion, time—not necessarily in a good way. So we should give kids the tools they need to be an informed citizen in the 21st century.”
The “mashed potatoes and gravy” paradigm has yielded, elsewhere, parental protests over CRT, a college-level curriculum not taught at the K-12 level but nonetheless debated by school boards. Robinson, Lando and Thompson (a facilities construction manager for Butte County) relayed concerns about socio-political issues polarizing CUSD along similar lines as COVID policy.
“I thought that the school board was running well for years, up until the pandemic came along,” Thompson said. “We’re seeing the radicalization of school boards … I’m worried about someone coming onto the board who isn’t somebody like me, who has more extreme views, who is going to make policy and inform the learning experience that my five kids are all going to go through.
“I don’t have an agenda to push,” he added. “I have an agenda of things that I want to see continue or happen, but really be pragmatic and look at information, take it in and make informed decisions.”
Fellow newcomers Konkin, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and Wilson, an agricultural broker, echoed that sentiment.
“When I considered even running for school board, much of my comfort level was, ‘Oh, it’s nonpartisan, this will be fine,’ but I quickly realized it doesn’t seem that way,” Konkin said. “I have never been a particularly politically charged person…. [If elected,] I would uphold the nonpartisan idea; I would not make my decision based upon how another board member makes a decision.”
Said Wilson: “I hate it for a school board to be politicized. It’s a disservice to the kids and to the parents.”
Trustee Area elections:
Chico Unified School District shifted board seats from at-large to trustee areas. (Visit tinyurl.com/cusdtrusteemap for an interactive map.) Areas 1, 4 and 5 are up this election; Areas 2 and 3 are up in 2024.
Caitlin Dalby and Matt Tennis, elected in 2020, remain at-large trustees through 2024. Should Tennis defeat fellow incumbent Thomas Lando in Area 4, the board would appoint a replacement for the remainder of Tennis’ at-large term.