A special election has been called for April 24, 2018 to fill the vacant Rancho Santa Fe School board seat.The election was forced after a petition of 110 signatures was submitted to the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools objecting to the school board’s appointment process — the first successful petition of this kind in San Diego County since 1994.
As a result of the petition effort, board member Jon Yonemitsu’s provisional appointment was officially terminated on Dec. 15.
“It is very disappointing, tough and discouraging,” Yonemitsu said. “I was looking forward to working with the board and collaborating with the school, helping to make some positive contributions to continuing the progress the district has been making. Quite frankly, up until today it has been a great experience.”
The events were set in motion when trustee Marti Ritto resigned on Sept. 13. The Rancho Santa Fe School District board interviewed five candidates for its board vacancy in an open session on Oct. 16, leaving a week between interviews and the decision-making to allow board members to receive public input. Yonemitsu was then selected and appointed unanimously on Oct. 23.
The board had options on what method to take to fill Ritto’s seat, which is up for re-election in November 2018, either choosing a special election or going through an appointment process. At a Sept. 15 meeting several residents requested the special election route, raising concerns that the selection of the new board member should be made by the community as there has been a pattern of appointments in the district. Tyler Seltzer was appointed in 2011 and Scott Kahn was appointed in May 2016. Both board members went on to be elected — Seltzer was been re-elected twice, in 2012 and in 2016, and Kahn was elected in 2016.
At that September meeting, one of the residents even warned the board that if the board chose to appoint, they would file a petition.
In order to petition against the board’s appointment, petitioners only needed to gather 65 signatures representing 1.5 percent of the 4,292 registered voters in the school district.
Rancho Santa Fe residents Annie Golden and Diana Knickrehm were the sponsors of the first petition. After turning in 165 signatures they were told it might be invalidated due to a technicality — the signatures were numbered 1 to 165 instead of 1,2,3 and 4 on each page.
Heather Slosar, a mother of five children who have all attended or currently attend Roger Rowe, was the sponsor of a second petition a week later in the case that the invalidation occurred. She collected the 110 signatures in one day.
Slosar said they were informed that the first petition was indeed invalidated, but the second was successfully validated on Dec. 15
“A contested election offers many benefits, all lost when an appointment steals our vote. Running in a contested election, a public official would receive an education in the thousands of voters' desires, the school's needs and the democratic process - not merely an education in existing board member pet projects,” Slosar said. “Through the election process, candidates would learn that voters in our district do not want more ivory towers or ivory gyms built at our school, another bond or an ever-expanding real estate empire. However, voters do want the best education possible for our students. Any potential board members need to hear that community voice.”
At its Dec. 14 meeting (re-scheduled from Dec. 7 due to the wildfires), the board approved a resolution that the special election ordered by the SD County Superintendent of Schools be conducted entirely by mail ballot.
RSF School Board President Todd Frank said although SD County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold determines how the election is done and the district just receives the bill, the board could recommend their preferred method. Michael Vu of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters informed the district that the projected cost for an all-mail ballot election is between $40,000 and $80,000. A standard poll election could be closer to $100,000.
Kahn remarked that it was a significant amount of money that the district was going to have to pay for an election either way, given the duration of the appointment.
“I think the whole thing is a big complete waste of time and money so I think we should spend as little money on it as possible,” Vice President Seltzer said in his support of the mail ballot election.
On Dec. 15, Superintendent Gothold made the request to the SD County Registrar of Voters to conduct the election for the board vacancy by an all-mail ballot after receiving the board’s resolution.
Slosar argued that an election is worth the time and expense as she believes appointment, even short-term ones, can create an unfair advantage in the next election. With an appointment, she said the candidate benefits from the incumbent stamp next to their name which “nearly ensures a win.”
This is not always the case. The neighboring Del Mar Union School District had to use the appointment method twice in 2015 to fill board vacancies — in the 2016 election only one of the appointees was re-elected, with the other being narrowly beat out by a new candidate.
“Other expenses that one might view as ‘wasteful’ could include the PR firm hired by the school board to explain why a $24 million gym bond is such a good deal for the community, architects to draft plans for a gym the community already told the board they don’t want or our hundreds of thousands spent on legal each year,” Slosar said. “Just one month without calls to lawyers could pay for this special election.”
Yonemitsu said he plans to run in the April election, saying he was too motivated by his appointment and short service on the board to be discouraged by the recall effort.
Slosar said she is not interested in running personally but has heard from four community members who are interested in tossing their hats in the ring. As the petitioners have stressed, their goal is to have any interested candidate “vetted by and selected by our engaged, intelligent community and not just school board members.”
“Whatever position you have on it, you can’t get around the fact that it’s a disruption to the board, which creates a disruption to the operations at the school and at the end of the day, won’t be good for the kids,” Yonemitsu said.