Parent’s $10,000 donation bolsters EUSD candidates’ campaigns, raises concerns

Parent’s $10,000 donation bolsters EUSD candidates’ campaigns, raises concerns
The EUSD race includes four candidates — one incumbent and three challengers — for two positions on the board, with two of the challengers running as a so-called ticket that embodies the criticism of the current board and superintendent. File photo

ENCINITAS — Big money campaigning, once reserved for national and statewide elections, has been making its way to local levels over the past few years.

By-in large, however, special district and small school board races have bucked the trend.

Locally, however, the largess of a single campaign contributor to two candidates in the Encinitas Union School District election has raised eyebrows — and questions.

Jacob Stern, a CEO of an insurance marketing firm who represents Mission Estancia Elementary on the Encinitas Educational Foundation board, contributed $10,000 to both Anne-Katherine Pingree and Leslie Schneider. The contributions were made earlier this year.

To put the contributions in perspective, the other two challengers in the race, Rimga Viskanta and current board member Patricia Sinay, have raised just over $17,000 combined.

Most donors have contributed small amounts to candidates. A review of the other contributions in the race show that most donors contributed $100 to the four campaigns. The second largest contribution amount seen in the finance reports was $1,000.

Both Pingree and Schneider, who have run similar campaigns calling for increased board transparency and fiscal responsibility, said they were appreciative of Stern’s contributions.

“I believe people give to my campaign because they believe as I do: we need board members who will listen and be responsive to community concerns,” Pingree said. “I appreciate every contribution and am honored by the community support I am receiving.  All my contributions to date have come from individuals — community members, friends and family.”

Stern said he contributed to the pair because he shared Pingree and Schneider’s concerns of the state of the district, which he said has misplaced priorities.

“Anne-Katherine and Leslie both demonstrated fiscal responsibility and the willingness to question the actions of the superintendent,” Stern said. “As a person who sits on boards and reports to board of directors, I know Anne-Katherine and Leslie will ask questions to the managers and superintendent at EUSD instead of always voting yes and never questioning anything.”

Schneider said that Stern only represented a fraction of the support they have received, when you include campaign volunteers, those who have placed signs on their lawns and other forms of support.

“I am very grateful that we have a tremendously caring and supportive group of parents… who realized that like I did, the only way to hope for change is to be a part of that change,” Schneider said. “I am fortunate that we all were able to get together and combine our efforts. Everybody gives what they can. My job that I found myself called to do was to be the candidate, others have waved signs, and others are blessed with treasures they can share with us.

“Jacob and his wife have been able to support us monetarily, but we have a lot of supporters in a lot of different areas,” Schneider said.

But Stern’s contributions have raised a number of questions from opponents, and experts say that it sets a dangerous precedent in smaller down-ballot races.

Viskanta, who has raised a little over $5,000 over the course of the race, said that such contributions unfairly tilt elections to the recipient’s favor.

“Money wins elections, and when you have that much money, it’s more money to advertise, buy signs and get your name out in front of people,” Viskanta said. “It’s basically like you are buying the election, and makes it hard for someone to get the word out in more traditional venues.”

“You also have to wonder what’s the motivation of making such a large donation,” she said.

Stern said that from his perspective, the donation pales in comparison to amounts he has donated to the educational foundation and the district’s parent-teacher association over the years.

“You’ll be surprised to learn how much our family has contributed to our school over time,” Stern said.

Encinitas Educational Foundation treasurer Jay Bell said the foundation doesn’t keep records of philanthropy by individuals.

Carl Luna, a political science professor with the University of San Diego, said he is concerned about the precedent such a donation would create in future races.

“The problem with a single person making such large contributions, effectively becoming the only significant donor for a candidate, is that the ‘public’ elected official has been partially privatized,” Luna said.

“If you are very wealthy $10k is a) not a huge amount when compared to the car you drive or the house you own; and b) is going to give you a much bigger footprint in a local race than in a state or national race,” Luna continued. “If this becomes the new normal you’ll see all manner of elected boards (and possibly judgeships — many states are dealing with the impact of big money on judicial impartiality) at least appearing to be more beholden to a handful of deep pockets further eroding public trust in government.  This is ‘checkbook democracy’ at the grass roots level.”

Schneider scoffed at the mention of “checkbook democracy,” pointing to the fact that both Viskanta and Sinay received endorsements from Encinitas’ teachers union, Teachers of Encinitas.

“We have had one backer versus an entire union supporting the other candidates,” Schneider said. “I think that (checkbook democracy statement) is very grandiose.”

Teachers of Encinitas President Leslie O’Keefe said that aside from the endorsement, the union’s support of Viskanta and Sinay has been nominal; a $300 contribution for both candidates.

“That is very misleading…They do not have the purse and volunteer support of teachers at their disposal,” O’Keefe said of Schneider’s statement. “We sponsored a forum for all four candidates last month.  The donation of $300 hardly compares to the $10,000 donation.”

Viskanta said if elected she would support campaign contribution limits, which the Encinitas Union School District currently doesn’t have.

“If one person asks to contribute that much to your campaign, of course it is tempting (to accept),” Viskanta said. “But the way to remove that temptation is to pass reforms at the board level.”

15 Comments
  1. tapple 11 months ago

    Oh please, stop whining. Life is not equal, you want to be taken seriously and/or need more money in your campaign chest go out and solicit it.

  2. Valerie Nash 11 months ago

    Definitely in favor of limiting the size of contributions to local races. Thanks for shining a light on this. This kind of money would basically allow people to buy the candidate of their choosing. And getting an endorsement from a Union (I would assume the members voted) isn’t the same a getting a big check from a wealthy person.

  3. Susan Siljander 11 months ago

    I think the reason that Schneider and Pingree have gotten more financial support is because the parents of EUSD want a change, as witnessed by the change.org petition with 940 supporters. While Viskanta and Sinay can complain that it is not fair – it is an incumbent and someone picked by the district to be on the board. They have the advantage. All the parents know this is David (Schneider/Pingree) vs. Goliath and our children’s future is on the line.

  4. David Owens 11 months ago

    It’s interesting that Sinay is pledging to pass campaign contribution reform but has no problem lying about her qualifications as a candidate. All of her campaign materials and signage state that she is running for “re-election” but she was never elected to the EUSD board. It’s a lie! She was appointed by the current board when Mo Muir vacated the seat and she never questions their complete lack of transparency or fiscal priorities. Moreover, she makes excuses for Superintendent Timothy Baird in the face of his admission of criminal non-disclosure and conflict of interest laws. Why aren’t you covering that story?

  5. Encinitas watchdog 11 months ago

    Welcome to politics 101. Not even sure why this a story. Did anyone question the donors in 2010 for the prop B bond? Those donors got huge contracts from the district after it passed. Hmmmm

  6. Anna Robin 11 months ago

    I think this speaks volumes as to the level of dissatisfaction by parents with this School District. The parents have been ignored for years and now this parent has clearly had enough! Good for him! The incumbent and her co-candidate shouldn’t be crying foul over a parents right to support new leadership. They should be self reflecting on what they did wrong. And as for the teachers union- to minimize their endorsement to a zero value is completely misleading. This demonstrates their own politicking – special interest lobbying at its best.

  7. Bruce Stirling 11 months ago

    It’s not $10k, it is only $5k per candidate which isn’t bizarre or extreme. There are many contributors. These are 2 individuals are competing against the union organizers which have unlimited resources. It shows the great community support they have over the 2 candidates who are already appointees of this failed board.

    • Author
      Aaron Burgin 11 months ago

      Hi Bruce,

      Actually, if you look at the campaign finance documents, which are available on the county website, both candidates received $10,000 contributions. Leslie Schneider received the $10,000 in June, and Anne Katherine received it in July. That’s $20,000 from a single contributor for a school district that has an enrollment of a little over 5,000 students. I’ve looked back through campaign finance documents on the county site and was unable to find a donation this large in a race this small. San Marcos Unified a few years back had a contributor donate $5,000 to a campaign, but SMUSD is 4 times the size of EUSD in terms of student enrollment (20,000 +). Whether the contribution reflects the angst of voters against the current board majority or raises questions about the place of big money in small district politics is up to the reader to decide, but on its face, a contribution this large in a small race is definitely newsworthy.

      AB

  8. Carl Pope 11 months ago

    So this isn’t about yoga and religion?

  9. Author
    Aaron Burgin 11 months ago

    Readers,

    A few of you have questioned whether the item was newsworthy, and I wanted to provide the context that will give you an understanding as to how we arrived at the decision to report on this.

    1. It is a historically large contribution for this district. Anecdotally and as far as the county records show, there hasn’t been a pair of donations this large in this district.

    2. It is very large compared to the size of the district: $20,000 for a district of 5,500 kids. In San Marcos Unified, which has 20,000 students, a contribution of $5,000 made waves because it was the largest such contribution anyone had seen in a school district race.

    After discussing it with my editor, we made the decision that based on these facts alone, readers deserved to at least know that this contribution occurred. As mentioned above, whether you believe that the contribution is appropriate and reflects the angst of the voters against the current board majority or whether you feel that a contribution this large unevenly tips the scales and raises questions about the role of big money in small races is up for you, the reader, to decide. We provide the information, analysis from independent experts, and an opportunity for candidates to comment on a topic.

    Thanks for reading guys, and don’t forget to vote on Nov. 8!

  10. Denise Ball 11 months ago

    What might be just as important is the number of average size donations. I suspect that Pingree & Schneider would be winning on that front as well. They have been working hard to get their message out to our district… It’s money well spent. I’m seeing yard signs for Pingree & Schneider in many homeowners yards, while I have yet to notice the other candidates getting that kind of support. I for one am grateful for the generous donations of time & money. It is critical that we get transparency & financial responsibility into the schoolboard and stop Baird from using it for his personal gain.

  11. Jeff Eddington 11 months ago

    Aaron, I agree that this is newsworthy. This extraordinary donation by a parent is a reflection of the extraordinary problems the community sees in the current board and the candidates it supports. I think a sharp distinction needs to be drawn between money donated by parents and the money (and political machine) that comes from a union. Unlike parents, the union backs candidates and in return for that support (both monetary and organizational) expects a payback in the form of a generous raises for the teachers in the future. I have no problem with the teachers receiving raises, but those raises need to be determined by a board that is objective not indebted to the union. In business we do not get to select who sits across from us at the negotiating table. In government, union support of candidate results in a situation where the governing board cannot make an objective, good-faith decision because it has favors to pay back.

    • Author
      Aaron Burgin 11 months ago

      Jeff,

      While I understand your concern about teacher’s unions and their support of candidates, the fact of the matter is, just like a corporation is able to contribute to a candidate, unions have that right too, and if the public votes for candidates backed by an employee union, they are by definition consenting to having those folks at the bargaining table. Courts have ruled there is no inherent conflict of interest for any elected official accepting campaign contributions from employee unions or corporations, versus shared interests in real property or income.

      Also, from a practical standpoint, you’d be hard pressed to find an elected official that hasn’t sought the backing of some employee union anywhere. I don’t believe this makes them more or less qualified or capable of making an unbiased decision for the good of their constituency.

      AB

  12. Susan Siljander 11 months ago

    Aaron,

    I would LOVE to see a story on the EUSD teacher raises in June. You will have to do some detective work – but this is my understanding… May: Baird tries to pass the $800k out of general fund for yoga May: Parents find out. Change.org = 940 signatures, go to meetings – it is reduced to $400k; May: Teachers were VERY upset about use of general fund but went through their union. June: Very quiet 6% raise to all staff. I am not sure, but last raise was either the year before or 2 years before – it hadn’t been forever like SDUHSD’s.

    This is a great story because *I think* this is why the teachers union backs the incumbents. They have been known to “go with the program” to “not rock the boat”.

    Thank you,

    Susan

  13. craig nelson 11 months ago

    I wonder how much the Union has spent promoting (not donating directly to) their hand picked candidates? I don’t suppose they are whining about that , nor do I suppose we’ll see an article about that anytime soon…

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