Will two $50,000 donations sway Chino Valley Unified school board races? – San Bernardino Sun

Two Chino Valley Unified school board candidates have each received donations of $50,000 to their campaign committees, campaign records show.

The donations were made by Upland residents Carlos “Charlie” and Sherry Reynoso, the owners of Ontario-based Star Hardware. The company is described as a “leading subcontractor specializing in doors, frames, & hardware. Headquartered in Southern California with additional offices in Nevada and Arizona” on its LinkedIn page.

They made their donations in March to school board candidates Sonja Shaw and Jon Monroe, who are vying for seats in Governing Board Area 3 and 4, respectively.

No contribution caps for school board races

If the Reynosos’ donations seem high, they are. The two donations are more than 10 times the maximum allowable to a city council or county supervisor candidate — currently set at $4,900 per candidate per election, under state law. As of 2021, there’s a default cap on contributions to those campaigns when local officials haven’t set their own caps. There’s also an $8,100 cap for various state-level officials and a $32,400 cap for candidates for governor. There is no cap for school board races.

The campaign donation limits were set by Assembly Bill 571, which was introduced by Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, in 2019. School districts, special districts and judicial races didn’t receive a cap in the law because Mullin didn’t see the need for them at that point.

“When Assemblymember Mullin introduced AB-571, we were only aware of some instances of excessive fundraising related to some municipal races,” Mullin’s chief of staff, Hugh Bower, wrote in an email. “The decision was to keep the bill narrow to cities and counties. In the future, another legislator may wish to expand AB-571.”

The Reynosos’ donations came to light in campaign financial disclosure documents — also known as California Form 460 — filed before the Aug. 1 deadline, covering the period from Jan. 1 through June 30.

The Reynosos did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

As of July 30, in Area 3, Chino Valley Unified school board president Christina Gagnier’s campaign committee had $30,973 on hand, after making $293 in expenditures; while candidate Shaw’s campaign committee had $50,476 on hand after making $3,883 in campaign expenditures.

Area 4 candidate Lisa Greathouse’s campaign committee had $2,112 in its war chest, after making $3,372 in campaign expenditures; while Monroe’s campaign had $43,078 on hand, after making $8,496 in expenditures.

The next set of 460s must be filed by Sept. 29, and cover the period between July 1 and Sept. 24, followed by another filing deadline of Oct. 27, covering the period between Sept. 25 and Oct. 22. And, in the meantime, any donation over $1,000 will require a campaign finance report filing within 24 hours.

Had Greathouse, a longtime Chino Hills resident, mother of two Chino Valley Unified grads and school volunteer, known what she would be facing, “I would have thought twice about running, because when you know your opponent can outspend you 10-to-1, that’s got to make you pause and make you decide whether you want to spend a good portion of your time fundraising,” she said.

“I think it’ll discourage people going forward, because not a lot of people can bundle together $50,000 for a school board race — which is insane,” Gagnier said.

Gagnier also said she’s concerned the Reynosos, whom she said have millions of dollars of contracts with Chino Valley Unified, are getting so heavily involved with district politics.

“I don’t want vendors getting behind candidates, thinking they’re going to get contracts,” she said.

Shaw, a Chino native and the mother of two Chino Valley Unified students, said she didn’t know the Reynosos would be donating $50,000 to her campaign.

“I had no clue,” she said. “When it was given to me, I literally cried.”

Shaw said the $50,000 donation just evens the odds.

Gagnier is “backed by the unions, the politicians,” Shaw added.

July 22 campaign contribution forms for Gagnier lists a $4,900 contribution from the county supervisor campaign committee of state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who failed in her bid against Supervisor Curt Hagman in June. That’s the largest donation in the campaign as of Aug. 1, aside from the Reynosos’.

The Reynosos’ donation “came from somebody who was a coach in our community, who I call a friend,” Shaw said. “I’m proud of the money.”

And it came with no strings attached, she said.

“‘Run a good campaign,’” Shaw said the Reynosos told her. “That was it.”

Monroe, who grew up in Chino Hills and now works for the Chino Police Department, knows Charlie Reynoso through coaching, which both have done in the community.

“We talked a lot about sports, but we also talked about the state of the school board,” he said. “We don’t have heavy political conversations, although politics comes into play. But what we talk about most are the many kids we’ve coached and the quality of character of the kids the district has produced in the past. He has many of those kids working for him.”

Like Shaw, Monroe said that cash — even a $50,000 donation — can’t guarantee a win in the school board race.

“That teachers union has 12,000 people that could be out pushing the message for my opponent,” he said. “I think it maybe levels the playing field a little bit.”

The union, Associated Chino Teachers, endorsed Gagnier and Greathouse in the upcoming election in an Aug. 17 post on their Instagram page.

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Balance of power

During the coronavirus pandemic in Chino Valley Unified, in addition to battles over distance learning and pandemic-related restrictions, there was a debate over whether to add 30 minutes to the instructional day, which was presented as a way to make up for lost academic ground. That battle brought Shaw, now the president of a group called Parent Advocates of Chino Valley, into school board politics.

“It was never just about the mandates,” she said. “What we fight for behind the scenes is a lot more than that.”

Resurgent conservative and religious political activism in Chino Valley Unified is part of a regional and national trend, according to John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA.

In 2020, Rogers said, Republican pundits and politicians began trying out possible 2020 presidential campaign issues. These included attacking the use of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project in classrooms, and discussions of race in American history and society, inaccurately labeled as Critical Race Theory. In Virginia, political newcomer Glenn Youngkin rode educational issues into the governor’s office.

Republicans nationally “were tapping into a broader sense of dissatisfaction among parents during the pandemic,” Rogers said. “There were lots of issues of power and agency that were playing out then and have played out since.”

And during the pandemic, as parents, especially conservative parents, often felt frustrated with federal, state and local government, school board meetings had a powerful attraction, he said.

“One place that their concerns could be shared, even if those concerns couldn’t be resolved, were the local school boards,” Rogers said.

The Reynosos’ donations could tip the balance of power in the district back toward a more religious, conservative direction that takes many of its cues from the Calvary Chapel Chino Hills megachurch.

Current board members Andrew Cruz and James Na, both members of the Calvary Chapel Chino Hills community, have followed the lead of the church’s nationally prominent pastor, Jack Hibbs. The district ran up $282,602 in legal fees over prayer during school board meetings, including Cruz once discussing the Bible from the dais for 12 minutes midmeeting. The school board and church also opposed a 2013 California law that allows students access to sex-restricted facilities such as bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender with which they identify and to gender-restricted activities, like sports teams.

“For nearly all the time I’ve been living here, I have been stunned by how much controversy our school board has always been mired in,” Greathouse said.

In the past, Hibbs has bluntly told the board they need to listen to his congregants or face the consequences.

“We’ve entrusted our kids to you,” Hibbs told board members at a September 2016 meeting. “And if we don’t hear that you’re listening to the voice of the people, then what happens is, voting time comes. And it’s very important that we vote for those who represent our concerns. And that’s the nation that we live in.”

In the 2018 election, Gagnier and board member Joe Schaffer won seats, swinging the board majority in a more secular direction. Schaffer is not running for reelection and religious conservatives, energized by parental frustrations during the pandemic, only have to win one of the two open seats on Nov. 8 to swing things back their way.

Shaw attends church at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, but said she doesn’t force her religious views on others.

“That’s not me,” Shaw said.

She bristles at the notion that she’s doing the mega-church’s bidding in running for the school board.

“They keep calling me ‘the church’s choice,’” Shaw said. “I’ve never met Pastor Jack (Hibbs). I’ve never been brought up on stage.”

And Monroe is not a member of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills at all: He’s a Mormon.

While he calls himself a conservative, and his campaign website talks about parental rights, Monroe said he doesn’t agree with how ugly things have gotten at board meetings in recent years.

“It just felt like the district was kind of imploding,” he said. “It was hard to watch.”

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