Why a $250 donation from a right-wing activist has riled up an East Bay school board race

The small but headline-grabbing donation is from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

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ByLiz Kreutz via KGO logo
Wednesday, November 2, 2022
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A $250 donation from Ginni Thomas, a right-wing activist, has a Contra Costa County school board race riled up ahead of next week's election.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Across the Bay Area, the fight for local school boards are some of the most contentious races on the ballot.

ABC7 News has documented this in Marin County, where a vocal conservative activist is running in Novato, and in the South Bay, where a Republican group helped recruit 16 candidates to run across 10 different school districts.

In Contra Costa County, three different school board races are also getting an unusual amount of attention. That's, in part, due to a small but headline-grabbing donation from one prominent conservative activist: Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

"The national Republican Party and national conservatives have explicitly said, we conservatives need to take over school boards," Chad Curran, a parent in Orinda, told ABC7 News.

He said the donation from Thomas shows it's happening in Contra Costa County, too.

Curran runs a Facebook group called "Chronicling Right Wing Extremism." He is one of more than 500 parents who have signed a Change.org petition against what they call an "organized right-wing takeover attempt" of local school boards in Orinda, Moraga and Lafayette.

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"There is an effort by conservatives to take control of school boards across the country," the petition says. "Two slates running for our school boards are trying to do just that by gaining majority rule. If they are elected, it would undo much of the great work done so far to make our schools great for all students."

The petition is referring to two trios of candidates loosely running together in the Acalanes Governing Board and Lafayette School Board. There is also a candidate they oppose running for Contra Costa County Board of Education Area 2.

One thing Curran points to, to support their claims is a $250 donation from Thomas to the group running for the Acalanes Governing Board.

Mark Woolway is one of those candidates. He brushed off the donation, which he said was meant for his fellow candidate Gabe Ledeen, who is family friends with Clarence and Ginni Thomas.

"The idea that somebody on the other side of the country makes a $250 donation as a courtesy to a family friend is somehow nefarious is laughable," Woolway told ABC7 News.

But Curran pointed out that Woolway also has ties to prominent conservatives, including venture capitalists Peter Thiel and David Sacks, who helped fund the San Francisco school board and district attorney recalls. Woolway also served on former President Donald Trump's transition team.

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Woolway said it's unfair to say he's politically motivated. He is registered as a Libertarian and never voted for Donald Trump. He said he decided to run because he was unhappy with how his kids' school board handled the pandemic and that people have been too quick to say he's part of a larger conservative effort.

"I'm not a Republican. I don't identify as a conservative," he said. "And I think it's reflective of the lack of willingness to entertain different thoughts. Anyone who comes out with any opinion that may challenge the current board's orthodoxy is labeled a conservative or some kind of right-wing movement, which in my case, couldn't be farther from the truth," he added.

He said his main priority is to improve the academic performance of the schools. "I think to a large degree the current board is focused on things other than academics," he explained.

Curran said he believes Woolway may be concealing his full agenda. He pointed to a statement from Woolway that says schools should focus on "academic excellence over ideology."

"The language seemed, kind of, to be coded language," Curran said. "What that said to me is that we believe we are focusing too much on diversity education and too much on gender issues, and that's costing our students in terms of their education."

"There is nothing coded in this," Woolway replied. "This is all I want to focus on. And it's why I'm running."

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Both Curran and Woolway acknowledge the heightened interest in this race speaks to how politicized and polarized school boards races -- which are nonpartisan positions -- have become.

The California GOP launched an effort called "Parent Revolt" to recruit and train candidates for school boards. Much of the interest in school boards began during the pandemic by parents frustrated by how schools handled COVID-19. Many of the candidates running now, however, have transitioned from talking about the pandemic to talking about classroom curriculum and social issues, including how issues around race and gender identity, such as transgender, should be taught in school.

Curran said his concerns around this year's school board races can be traced back to a single yard sign he spotted in Lafayette.

"I saw a sign that had three names on it that said, 'Back to Education,' in Lafayette," Curran said. "The phrasing sounded a lot like, 'Make America Great Again.' Like, what are we getting back to? And where are we going that we don't want to go?"

The sign, it turned out, belonged to three of those candidates ultimately mentioned in the Change.org petition. One of them has since backed out of the race after Curran dug up problematic tweets from the candidate.

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