CUSD special election final price tag: $490,387

by Steven Felschundneff |

Claremont Unified School District finally got the bill for a special election it was compelled to hold, and the damage is an eye popping $490,387, nearly double the amount the district had anticipated paying.

“I think it’s absolutely shameful that 102 self-selected petitioners were empowered and emboldened to spend almost a half a million dollars of this community’s tax dollars on an unnecessary special election to unseat a board appointed trustee with 13 years of professional governance experience,” CUSD Board President Bob Fass said during the December 14 CUSD Board of Education meeting, when the election’s true cost became public. “That trustee would have served for less than two years, until the regularly scheduled election, and would have brought stability to a district that was already challenged with a significant disruption.”

On November 28, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk sent the school district an invoice for the election with instructions that the full cost was due in 30 days. On Wednesday, Superintendent Jim Elsasser said the bill has already been paid with money from the district’s general fund.

CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Business Services Dinah Felix presented a progress report on the district’s budget at the December 14 board meeting.

After providing an overall assessment of the district’s finances, including flagging revenues due to declining enrollment in Claremont and the state’s projected deficit, Felix outlined some of the other headwinds the budget faced, including compensating the county for its role in running the election.

“We have also included $217,000 to cover the additional costs for the special election. This amount is in excess of the $273,000 originally estimated by the Los Angeles County Office of Education that we originally budgeted,” Felix said. “The additional amount brought the total cost of the special election $490,387.”

The special election was the end result of a saga that began in December 2022 when then Board President Steven Llanusa resigned following public outcry related to alleged crimes committed during a holiday party at his home. After soliciting applications to fill the vacant Trustee Area 4 seat, the board appointed former member Hilary LaConte as a placeholder until the November 2024 election.

That decision did not sit well with some in Claremont who felt voters should decide who would represent them on the board of education. A successful petition drive, led by Claremont resident Joshua Rogers, forced the district to hold an election to replace Llanusa.

On July 25 voters selected physician Dr. Alex McDonald in a landslide over two other candidates, Rogers and Aaron Peterson. McDonald will serve the remainder of Llanusa’s four-year term, ending in 2026.

According to Elsasser, the $273,000 initial estimate for the election was provided by the Los Angeles County Office of Education based on information received from the registrar-recorder, and that this figure was only an estimate.

“That estimate is based on review of previous election costs and available data regarding the proposed election,” Michael Sanchez, a spokesperson for the registrar-recorder’s office, told Courier Editor Mick Rhodes in February. “The key piece in that is that it is an estimate.”

In an email Wednesday, Rogers called on the Board of Education and Elsasser to challenge the county for charging an “exorbitant and unaffordable amount for conducting an election,” particularly given that it has a monopoly in holding elections. He also claimed the cost amounted to a poll tax which is prohibited under the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also by the California state constitution.

“Democracy has always faced challenges, perhaps never more so than today,” Rogers wrote in the email. “One of the key ‘weapons’ used against democracy is removing or restricting the right to vote. By charging the CUSD $500,000 to hold a tiny election, twice the already exorbitant sum they themselves quoted, the [Los Angeles County Office of Education] is sending a message to all similar districts: ‘Yes, you can exercise your legal right to elect your school board officials, but we will extract a pound of flesh for it.’ The outrageousness of the numbers suggest strongly that the bill was made more to make a point, rather than to cover reasonable costs.”

But others, including Fass, feel the entire exercise was a waste of public resources that could have been spent on CUSD students, including for “learning loss, closing the achievement gap, mental health resources or a myriad of other needs.” He also lamented not being able spend that money on providing educators with the compensation and benefits they deserve.

McDonald was similarly aggrieved at the December 14 board meeting. “I am just so profoundly disappointed that a tiny fraction of our community wasted half a million dollars that should have been spent on furthering student education and enrichment,” he said. “This was an exorbitant waste of precious funds especially given the financial environment we are facing.”

“We are meticulously reviewing our budget to minimize the impact on our programs,” Elsasser wrote in an email Wednesday. “Our priority is to maintain the integrity of our core educational and extracurricular programs as outlined in ‘The CUSD Commitment.’ While we foresee adjustments in some areas, we are committed to making decisions that least affect the quality of education and services we provide to our students.”

“We can and we should do better,” Fass said during the December 14 board meeting. “This is a stain on our governance process. It should be a wake up call to me, to all of you and the citizens of Claremont who we represent, that we have to stand up against those who seek to disrupt and distract our district from achieving our goals. This expenditure, given this fiscal outlook tonight, feels like an assault, like a punch to the gut. I am very sad to see this outcome and I am even more determined than ever to overcome it and move forward. We will not let the actions of a few destroy the ambitions of our students and staff.”


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