Orange County voters are about to pick a new majority on the county board of education, and the race has picked up a lot more focus than usual. 

In previous elections, board members largely flew under the radar as communities focused on their own local school districts. 

But over the past two years, several votes by the board majority have catapulted the panel into the local and even national spotlight, making headlines across the country for rejecting the use of masks in schools, and suing Gov. Gavin Newsom over mask mandates. 

Read: OC Board of Education Panel Calls for a Fall Return to Classes with No Masks or Distancing

While the board doesn’t have the power to mandate curriculum or COVID-19 regulations, it does have the final say on charter school applications in Orange County and approves the annual budget for the county department of education. 

The board has also sued Superintendent Al Mijares, who’s currently running against an opponent for the first time ever, numerous times over control of the county department of education’s budget and control over their own lawyers. 

Read: OC Board of Education, Superintendent Spend $3 Million in Legal Battle to Pick Their Own Lawyers

Board members are also some of the only elected officials whose fates are decided in the June primary without proceeding to November – whoever wins here picks up the four year seat. 

Three of the four members of that majority, all endorsed by the county Republican Party, are on the ballot this election, and with renewed focus on the board they have a host of competitors for a seat most challengers wouldn’t have thought to run for a few years ago. 

Second District

Every seat up for grabs in this election already has somebody sitting in it, and the most prominent member of the board who’s up for election is Mari Barke. 

Currently serving as board president, Barke was one of the loudest proponents for reopening schools and ending any mask or vaccine mandates, traveling to events in Orange and Riverside County encouraging a return to the classroom.  

In her ballot statement, Barke pledged to continue working for “students and parental rights…not special interests,” and said parents should have the power to decide what path their child takes, whether that’s a public, private, charter or home school. 

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Her largest individual donor was Mark Bucher, the cofounder and a current board member of the California Policy Center, a conservative nonprofit with the goal of “eliminating public-sector barriers to freedom.”

He’s been a staunch supporter of local charter schools, serving as one of the leaders to create the Orange County Classical Academy, the charter school run by Jeff Barke, Mari’s husband, who also chairs the county GOP Endorsement Committee and acts as a second Vice Chair for the OC GOP Central Committee.

Bucher gave a $25,000 loan to each of the incumbent board members’ campaigns, making him the largest campaign contributor in all three of those races outside of what candidates invested of their own money. 

The rest of Barke’s fund mostly comes from retirees, business owners, and several law firms. 

To review her full list of donors, click here.  

To see her campaign website, click here

Barke’s biggest competitor is Martha Fluor, a retired Newport-Mesa School District trustee who served on the school board for nearly 30 years. 

In her ballot statement, Fluor took aim at the majority’s spending on lawsuits, promising to reinvest that money in classrooms. 

“School boards should be committed to ensuring students receive an excellent education…instead of squandering millions of dollars on lawsuits,” Fluor wrote. 

Her only statement on charters was a promise to “approve fiscally sound, educationally appropriate, well managed,” charter schools. 

Fluor’s campaign cash largely comes from retired donors, along with some teachers, school board members and the Women in Leadership political action group. 

To review her full list of donors, click here.  

To see her campaign website, click here

Christopher R. Ganiere, an architect, is also running for the seat, but has not created a campaign website or reported any donations. 

In a short article posted to his LinkedIn page, Ganiere promised to ban any future mask mandates or school closures, allow homeschoolers access to public school programs, and allow students to transfer to any district they want. 

Fourth District 

Tim Shaw was originally elected to his seat in 2020, but resigned in 2021 after being challenged by a lawsuit alleging he had a conflict of interest for simultaneously serving on the board and the La Habra City Council. 

His fellow board members then reappointed him to the seat less than a month later, triggering another legal challenge that led to an Orange County Superior Court Judge temporarily suspending Shaw last month, saying his reappointment may have violated the law. 

Read: Tim Shaw Temporarily Removed From the Orange County Board of Education

Shaw’s money mostly came from Bucher, along with $25,000 from the Charter Public Schools PAC, $20,000 from the California Real Estate PAC and individual donors.

To review his full list of donors, click here.    

To see his campaign website, click here

While Shaw is still on the ballot for his old seat, whoever ultimately wins will get the remaining two years of his original term and have to run again in 2024. 

Shaw’s most prominent challenger is Paulette Chaffee, wife of county Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who lost to Shaw in the 2020 race for this same seat. 

Chaffee has the largest budget of anyone running for a board seat, investing over $200,000 of her own money in the race according to her campaign filings that make up the lionshare of her donations. 

To review her full list of donors, click here.  

To see her campaign website, click here

In her ballot statement, Chaffee also took aim at the spending on “frivolous lawsuits,” and said her goal was to build partnerships with local nonprofits and businesses, as well as helping students recover a “sense of normalcy,” following school closures during the pandemic. 

Chaffee was endorsed by the county Democratic Party, and if she wins it’ll be her first elected office after multiple election bids, including a race for Fullerton City Council she dropped out of after she was caught stealing her opponent’s campaign signs

Ellisa Kim and David Choi are also running for the seat, but have not created a campaign website or reported any donors. 

The Fifth District 

In the fifth district, board trustee Lisa Sparks is running to keep her seat after a somewhat quieter first term than her other colleagues on the board. 

Of the three incumbents running for reelection, Sparks has managed to stay largely out of the limelight. While she votes regularly with the majority, the only headlines she’s received came after she defended the board’s study saying masks and social distancing were harmful to children, citing experts who wrote it in an NPR interview. 

“That line was from the experts on our panel,” Sparks said. “We had pediatric experts on our panel. We had policy makers on our panel.” 

But while Sparks praised the work of the panel, it came out the panel had nothing to do with writing the report-it was instead written by Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center, an organization he co-founded with Bucher. 

Read: Panel Experts Walk Away From Controversial OC Board of Education Reopening Guidelines 

In her statement to the voters, Sparks advertised her experience working at Chapman University, where her husband serves as president, as the founding dean of the college’s school of communication for why voters should re-elect her. 

She also showcased her strong support of charter schools and her stance fighting against “the educational bureaucracy and special interests.” 

Her campaign funds came from sources including Bucher, who supplied nearly a third of her total campaign funds, along with $25,000 from the Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee and individual donations from local businesses and Chapman University staff.   

To review her full list of donors, click here.  

To see her campaign website, click here.

Her only opponent in the race is Sherine Smith, a long time education administrator who most recently served as the Laguna Beach Unified School District Superintendent and has picked up the backing of the Democratic Party of Orange County. 

Smith also took aim at the board majority’s spending on “frivolous lawsuits,” promising to redirect tax dollars toward education programs for teachers and focusing on smaller class sizes in her ballot statement. 

Smith’s money comes from retired teachers and school administrators, as well as several current school board trustees. 

To review her full list of donors, click here.  

To see her campaign website, click here

The deadline to vote for the board of education is June 7, and ballots have already been mailed to every Orange County voter. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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