Alpine Races See Partisan Politics

Candidates for the Alpine Union School District board may disagree on their politics, but they all say they’re happy with much of the way the East County district is running.

Test scores are high. The school system, which serves 2,300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, is managed well. Teachers are generally satisfied.

“There’s nothing severely broken in the Alpine school district,” said Gina Henke, one of six candidates.

Yet changes are ahead. Enrollment is declining, which reduces funding. And some worry that partisan politics are creeping into what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race.

Three of the five seats on the board are up for election. Board member Scott Barr is running for re-election, but 24-year board member Mary Wiggins and two-year member Scott Hunyar have decided not to run again.

Although school board races are nonpartisan, Hunyar and board member Mark Price, both Republicans, have endorsed candidates Louis Russo, Matt Schumsky and Eric Wray, also Republicans.

In addition to Barr and Henke, Bill Weaver is also running for a four-year term on the board. Radio personality Chuck Taylor has withdrawn from the race, but his name will appear on the ballot.

Barr, a Democrat, said he is concerned that politics could overtake the school board. Previously, members had agreed not to endorse candidates for the board.

“For the first time, it’s on the way to becoming polarized,” said Barr, 54, a counselor at Grossmont College. “I don’t know how to escape it now. By staying silent, you’re allowing a hostile takeover.”

After Price and Hunyar issued their endorsements, Wiggins and board member Ann Pierce endorsed Barr, Henke and Weaver. Wiggins and Pierce are Democrats, as are Barr and Henke. Weaver is a registered independent.

Price said he endorsed Russo, Schumsky and Wray because he believes they will best serve students, not because of their politics. He said he knows Russo and Wray but just met Schumsky, noting that Schumsky was endorsed by the local Republican Party.

Price said he was disappointed that Barr failed to support a resolution in July in which the school board asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto a bill that would have prohibited schools from using textbooks that disparage gays. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill Sept. 6.

The Alpine school board approved the resolution 3-2, with Barr and Pierce voting against it and Price, Hunyar and Wiggins supporting it. Barr said he and Pierce opposed the resolution because they felt it wasn’t a proper issue for the school board to decide.

“The purpose was to try to bring out who in the community was liberal and who was conservative,” Barr said.

Hunyar scoffs at the concept of a nonpartisan race, and said he believes it’s important for voters to know the politics of the people they’re voting for.

In a column he wrote for a community paper, Hunyar said: “Do you think the party leaders and strategists on either side of the aisle believe in nonpartisanship? To them, every single race is a contest for liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, secularists vs. traditionalists.”

Schumsky echoed that opinion.

“There’s no such thing as a nonpartisan race,” he said. “I don’t think it’s bad for people to represent themselves in a partisan way.”

Schumsky, 39, manages a real estate company. He’s the California field coordinator for FreedomWorks, described as a group that educates volunteer activists to fight for less government and lower taxes.

Schumsky, who’s also running for the Alpine planning group, said he wants to see private industry more involved in funding the school district. Schumsky has two preschool-age children and said he believes the district’s declining enrollment is merely a blip that will end soon.

Russo, 54, is a teacher at San Ysidro High School, with one child attending an Alpine school and another soon starting there.

He said he’s pleased with the teachers and high test scores in thedistrict, and wants to make sure it maintains its high quality.

“I don’t want any backsliding,” Russo said. “Any improvements they have will be minor adjustments versus anything major.”

The third Republican candidate, Wray, said he tries to avoid divisive political issues.

“School politics has no place whatsoever,” he said. “I really don’t have any (agenda) except for seeing that kids succeed.”

Wray, 37, who has two children attending school in Alpine, is a member of the school site council at Shadow Hills Elementary School, which helps decide how school money is spent. He’s also a member of the strategic planning committee and a parent advisory committee for the school district.

Henke, 44, who works at Lakeside Farms Elementary School, is also a teacher. She has been endorsed by the county Democratic Central Committee. Her son, who now attends high school, was a student in the school district.

Henke said declining enrollment means the school board will have to better use the fewer resources that will be available. She said her background as a teacher will help her if elected to the board.

“We need to be getting some solid people in there who have experience in education and who know the issues,” she said.

Weaver, 50, was a safety and fire protection engineer until he was involved in a car accident in 1989, leaving him a quadriplegic. He went into semiretirement a year later, and now devotes much of his time to volunteering with the parent-teachers association, the Alpine Chamber of Commerce education committee, and the school district’s strategic planning committee and parent advisory committee.

Weaver said he doesn’t believe current board members should be endorsing candidates.

“At the district level, I just think politics should be left out of this,” he said.

Weaver, who unsuccessfully ran for the school board two years ago, said he has no political goals beyond the board.

“People are getting on school boards for the wrong reasons, and it’s not necessarily to meet the goals of the local school district,” he said. “My aspirations are the Alpine school board. I will never run for anything else.”