This year’s Santa Clara Unified School District Trustee election promises to be ugly. That was established when SCUSD Board of Trustees incumbent Ina Bendis rang candidate Jodi Muirhead’s doorbell on a Saturday night to serve Muirhead with a lawsuit and a summons to appear in court the following Monday at 8:15 a.m. Bendis’ lawsuit, naming Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey as well, charged that Muirhead’s ballot statement was “misleading and otherwise illegal.”
But Bendis’ lawsuit fizzled when Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Carol Overton let the ballot statement stand, with one sentence change agreed to by the parties in a private conference. They also agreed not to sue each other for legal fees.
Originally Muirhead’s statement said, “I also resurrected, and now chair, our District Science Fair after budget cuts closed it down.” The change reads: “I also revived and was the volunteer chair of the District Science after budgetary issues suspended it.”
“Judge Overton’s order forced Ms. Muirhead to comply with California Law in her Candidate Statement,” said Bendis in an email. “I am gratified by that result.”
“I think it [the outcome] proved that her lawsuit was frivolous,” said Muirhead afterwards. “I’m redoubling my efforts to win this election so that we can change the focus [of the SCUSD board] back to our kids.” She added that she planned to walk precincts that afternoon.
Parsing Words and the California Election Code
Bendis’ 40-page suit charged that, “In the context of a contest in which Muirhead’s victory absolutely depends on a currently-serving Board Member’s ouster,” Muirhead’s “disparaging reference to the current School Board’s ‘qualifications, character, or activities’ in relationship to employee retention, comprises a disparaging reference to Incumbent candidates Koltermann and Bendis.”
In addition, “A blanket statement asserting that ‘longtime principals, teachers and administrators are leaving our schools,’ is confusing to the point of being misleading,” carrying “disparaging undertones and no real meaning, or purpose or effect except to mislead.” The entire district administration and at least half a dozen principals have left the district or retired since 2012. There have been four superintendents since 2006.
Referencing the District Science Fair, Bendis said, “Candidate Muirhead’s claim that she ‘resurrected’ the District Science Fair, and did so implied unilaterally by virtue of using the personal pronoun “I,” is also false and misleading … the continuation of the SCUSD Science Fair during the years District lacked sufficient funding to support it was a community-wide effort to which scores of volunteers contributed time and resources, including parents, residents, and Schools Trustees, and neither Muirhead, nor any other individual person can truthfully claim sole responsibility for the success of this cooperative effort.”
Further, “inasmuch as the Science Fair never ‘died’ or ‘ceased to exist’ during the district’s lean years, but continued uninterrupted … it therefore cannot have gotten ‘resurrected.'”
Muirhead chaired the science fair since 2011-12, under the sponsorship of Santa Clara United Parents (SCUP), of which she was a founding member. She organized and managed the event, and led efforts to raise private funding. District employees, newsletter and newspaper reports, and correspondence all attest to this.
The board resumed funding for the 2014-15 fair last May, but the district offered no plan for managing it. Muirhead said she was subsequently told that that the district wanted to continue the relationship with SCUP, “and the work we have done to organize the science fair and provide volunteers.”
Bendis based her claims on a 1998 case where an appeals court struck part of an Orange County schools superintendent candidate’s ballot statement because he accused his opponent (the incumbent), by name, of directing $250 million of district borrowing “to gamble” in Robert Citron’s notorious Orange County investment pool fraud. This had nothing to do with candidate qualifications, the court said.
Muirhead’s response named rulings going back to 1980, affirming that the word “qualifications” in California election code “also encompasses a candidate’s ideas or platform.”
A $9,000 Stick to Beat an Opponent?
One sentence may sound trivial, but the episode’s impact as a campaign tactic isn’t. Muirhead spent $9,000 in legal fees, and diverted time and resources from her campaign. Bendis represented herself. Since school board elections are typically won by razor-thin margins, running out of lawn signs or time to canvas voters can make the winning or losing difference. Trustee Area 2 has four seats on the board.
Bendis was first elected in 2006, taking second place with 33 percent of the vote in a field of four candidates. That year’s top vote-getter was Patricia Flot with 35 percent. Bendis was re-elected in 2010 with 19 percent, out of a field of six candidates. Christine Koltermann took first place with 21 percent.
Bendis has a documented record of hostility toward SCUP and, by extension, Muirhead. She’s repeatedly challenged SCUP’s status as a legitimate school-connected organization, privately expressing marked rancor toward it. SCUP refused Bendis’ membership because she has no children attending SCUSD schools.
“This organization … is actually controlled by a small cadre of Washington Open and Rivermark-based Don Callejon parents who actively supported the unsuccessful attempt by Ms. Flot and Ms. Strauss to oust me from the Board and thwart Dr. Koltermann’s election,” she wrote in a 2011 email to then-Superintendent Bobbie Plough, referring to the 2010 election.
“SCUP’s active members who are predominantly White and Asian, predominantly highly educated, and predominantly affluent,” she continued, “represent only the most privileged segment of the District’s ethnic or socioeconomic demographic, and exclude the most challenged demographic segments.”
“I do not want to see our District expend Staff resources on ‘special interest’ requests by relatively advantaged subgroups,” she said in the same email, “for reinstitution of programs that the District cannot afford to continue in our current fiscal crisis due to their drain on our budget (e.g., Elementary Music), staff time (e.g., District Science Fair) or both.”
This email seems to show that, rather than helping ensure the Science Fair’s continuation, Bendis was willing to let the district-wide event die rather than see “advantaged sub-groups” continue it.
Bendis’ campaign website characterizes opponents as “Those who cherish the status quo and resist accountability, fiscal responsibility and educational choices,” and “stewards of stagnation.” The site further says that, “Ina sees the vigor and venom of her opposition’s campaign tactics as a gratifying compliment to her effectiveness.”