Let the people speak … in November 2024

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Claremonters are lining up on both sides of the debate over the January 18 appointment of Hilary LaConte to serve out the remainder of Steven Llanusa’s term as the Trustee Area 4 representative on the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education.

LaConte, a resident of Trustee Area 4, was sworn in at the board’s February 2 meeting. She is scheduled to serve through November 2024.

Some opponents of her appointment contend the board showed disregard for the will of the people, and that it should have selected Aaron Peterson, Llanusa’s runner-up in the November 2022 election. Others have gone so far as to say it was undemocratic for the board to have made the appointment at all, and that voters in Trustee Area 4 should be allowed to select their board of education representative through a special election.

Some of those folks have begun circulating a petition among Trustee Area 4 voters in an effort to collect the 99 signatures necessary to compel CUSD to hold a special election to fill the seat. That petition must be in L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo’s office by Tuesday, February 21.

The Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorders Office estimates the proposed election would cost CUSD and taxpayers $273,000.

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

Proponents of LaConte’s appointment say why spend $273,000 on a special election for a relatively short term in office when those funds would be better spent on CUSD students. They also tout LaConte’s 13 years of previous board service as a valuable, steadying asset on a five-person body that includes four extremely capable but still relatively inexperienced newcomers.

I see merit in many of the arguments. I agree $273k is a lot of money. I also agree Aaron Peterson has a legitimate gripe in being passed over.

But there’s a third scenario here that should be considered: LaConte may just run if CUSD is required to hold a special election.

“I’ve been asked by many of my neighbors as well as other Trustee Area 4 residents to do so,” LaConte told me. “The same factors that initially motivated me to seek appointment still apply, so while I hope that the taxpayers and district will not have to spend $273,000, I am seriously considering running if there is a special election.”

So, taxpayers, it could very well come to pass that the district is forced to pony up more than a quarter million dollars only to be back in the exact same spot it was prior to a special election. That would be an expensive exercise.

Let’s talk about the money: as of December, CUSD had $9,686,053 in its general fund. Of that, $5m was “committed” to textbooks, Title IX expenditures, and HVAC upgrades, $3,549,030 was set aside for the state-mandated “legal reserve for economic uncertainty,” and $1,118,023 was “unassigned/unappropriated.” Should the special election go forward, the estimated $273k cost would come from the “unassigned/unappropriated” portion of the general fund.

Many have asked what impact such an expenditure would have on CUSD.

“Our general fund revenues support operational costs which include things such as utilities, student transportation, materials, books, supplies, salaries, and health and welfare benefits,” said CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser. “An unanticipated expenditure of $273,000 for a special election would require us to reexamine our priorities and make decisions on what may or may not be able to be funded.”

Some of those mobilizing to petition CUSD to hold an election — and I’m paraphrasing here — say the price tag is the unfortunate cost of upholding the democratic process. Now, characterizing this push as “defending democracy” may be a bit hyperbolic, but still it’s a tough ideal to line up against, especially as a journalist. But I must agree that in this instance, the price is too high.

It’s possible, of course, that those pushing for an election will be successful, and a new school board member more to their liking will be installed. But the risk of complete boondoggle, with $273k up in smoke — not to mention the time and money spent by potential candidates to campaign for a special election that would have to take place sometime before July 29 — is too real to ignore.

There is also real value in stability, and the CUSD Board of Education could really use some right now. The Llanusa spectacle seems to be behind it now, but it has certainly has left a bad taste in the mouths of many constituents. The last thing this board needs is more drama. A drawn-out, expensive special election — which could result in no change at all — just does not fare well in the cost/benefit analysis. That $273,000 buys a lot of iPads.

Should their effort fall short, the good news for special election proponents is they will have a pre-energized base from which to launch a campaign for whichever Trustee Area 4 candidate they support — say Peterson for instance — in the months leading up to the November 2024 election. LaConte made it clear to me she is not going run in that election, so the field will be wide open, likely with a full slate of new to the board candidates.

Isn’t that a more sensible approach to this thing?

Another interesting wrinkle in this debate is last spring the district spent more than $300,000 of general fund money to pay its former superintendent Jeff Wilson to walk away from the last two years of his three-year contract. Now some are questioning why the board was so willing to spend that chunk of change then, but is balking at a similarly-sized expenditure now.

Unfortunately it’s doubtful we will ever be able to compare the two because public employees’ personnel matters are confidential. We will likely never know what compelled the district to go to such extreme financial measures to separate itself from Wilson. Even if someone were to come forward and provide the information, the Courier runs the risk of being sued if we report on it.

This is nowhere near a perfect arrangement; I think we’d all prefer an election for the Trustee Area 4 seat if it weren’t so prohibitively expensive, and the next one wasn’t less than two years away. But in this instance, with the risk of a very costly folly quite possible, with this board, at this time, letting LaConte’s appointment stand is the right call.

1 Comment

  1. mjrogers59@gmail.com

    After a very fair and balanced consideration of the issues, sounds like Mr. Rhodes came down (just barely) on the “wrong” side of the fence.

    I find the exorbitant price tag to be far-fetched, and widely overstated, perhaps purposely so, to dissuade districts from causing everyone the trouble of holding an extra election. If the election were to go forward, I would do my very best to make sure that money stayed in the fund. I personally believe that it is one of the great tragedies of our country right now that we are not spending more on education. And I believe that the one of the other great tragedies is the erosion of individual control over the government. Most out there, like Mr. Rhodes, are coming down on the “wrong” side of the fence, for the wrong reason. Let’s do what we think is right for the district and then deal the constitutional issue of how much the Registrar can charge for its monopoly election-running services.

    Everyone 18 and over has the right to col- lect and submit signatures. Contact me at CUSDSpecialElection2023@gmail.com to get one. They are due February 21 in L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo’s office. Also, visit http://www.change.org/CUSDSpecialElection

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