The School District from Hell – Election Guide

Stay tuned for more election guides coming out this week and next, including City Council races in all cities, local ballot measures, and the Board of Supervisors!

Photo Credit: KSBW

Photo Credit: KSBW

When people think of the upcoming midterms few probably think much of the local school board races, except the parents that is. You can bet that most of them are at least partially informed about who is running and what’s at stake, given that it literally affects their children. However, as straight forward as it may seem, upon taking a closer look at one of our local school board races, Santa Cruz City Schools, one might be left scratching their head, or worse, pulling out their hair. Not that there is anything in particular ailing among the candidates, it’s just the district’s governing structure is obscenely confusing and obtuse. This is why I am inclined to dub it the “School Board From Hell”, and why I am going to focus on how it is governed more than who is hoping to govern it–in this special election guide.

First things first, Santa Cruz City Schools is actually 2 separate districts, one for the elementary and middle schools, and one for the high schools. However, they share the same school board, district office and budget, which combined is roughly 63 million dollars. Yet what truly makes this district(s?) so unique is that it also includes Soquel High, despite it being outside of the city limits. Why is this so interesting, especially from a civics perspective? The combined nature of how these districts are governed calls into question the nature of localized representation, jurisdictional boundaries and funding formulas, all of which inform the way candidates are forced to campaign. Let’s take a look at some of these peculiarities and how they might affect this year’s election.

In terms of representation and boundaries, here’s where things get a bit dicey. While these two districts share the same board, office and budget, they actually have different boundaries. The elementary/middle district boundary line mirrors the boundaries of the City of Santa Cruz, while the high school boundary line includes Davenport to the north, all of the City of Santa Cruz, plus Happy Valley, Live Oak, Soquel, Capitola and through/including Cabrillo College to the south. This means that the elementary and middle students from outside of the city are served by a different board, but will ultimately be served by Santa Cruz City Schools when entering high school. This also has huge implications for funding allocations, as students from outside the city are supported under a different a funding algorithm for elementary/middle school before entering high school.

So how does this manifest in terms of representation? Santa Cruz City Schools has a 7 member board, with residency requirements split amongst the board. 3 of the board members must live within the City limits, while 3 have to live outside but within the district boundaries, with the remaining member serving at large. School board members serve 4-year terms, in alternating even-year intervals, meaning that either 3 or 4 seats are up every 2 years. This year 4 seats were up for grabs, (2 in city seats, 1 outside seat and the at large seat), but the contest for the outside of the city seat ended with an lieu appointment, leaving just the 3 . But here’s the catch, it doesn’t matter where the candidates actually live or what seat they are going for, everyone within each district still gets to vote, meaning that people outside of the city still have a say in who the city representatives are and vice versa. This also means that each board candidate has to campaign across the entire district, from Davenport to Aptos. This sets up an interesting dynamic for potential candidates because the residency requirements don’t match up to the campaign area, but because there are multiple seats, candidates can, and often do, attempt to segment out “their” constituents.

But it gets worse. These board members bear a tremendous workload of bi-weekly meetings and committee/sub committee work, the equivalent to serving on the City Council, without any pay or even a stipend. The time commitment is easily 20 hours a week, a difficult commitment for anyone, let alone a parent who is likely already employed. Yet, under this structure, these 7 brave civil servants are responsible for over 7,000 students, 500 employees and budget 4 times the size of the city of Capitola. It’s not exactly the most glamorous job. That being said, here’s who is running:

Cynthia Hawthorne, Deb Tracy-Proulx and Ken Wagman are incumbents running together.

Cynthia Hawthorne, Deb Tracy-Proulx and Ken Wagman are incumbents running together.

At Large Seat

Cynthia Hawthorne (Incumbent)

Cynthia Hawthorne is running as an incumbent alongside Ken Wagman and Deb Tracy-Proulx. She has been endorsed by 3 members of the Santa Cruz City Council, both the state and county democratic party, as well as a majority of her current colleagues on the School Board. Some of her highlighted achievements include leading student nutrition reform, ending the mass lay-offs practice for teachers, increasing supply budgets and establishing the Green Schools Committee.

Alisun Thompson is running for the at large seat.

Alisun Thompson is running for the at large seat.

Alisun Thompson

Alisun Thompson is a former Salinas school teacher, former President of the Monarch Community School Board, and a recent Ph.D. graduate in education. She has been endorsed by a host of local labor organizations, including the local teacher’s union and the local SEIU chapter. Her platform is focused on maintaining professionalism and transparency at the board level, community and student oriented budgeting practices, and nurturing a balanced learning environment that works to develop social and emotional well-being, while also addressing the needs of marginalized youth.

City Seats (2 will win)

Ken Wagman (Incumbent)

Ken Wagman is a community college math teacher and former President of the Gavilan Teacher’s Union. He shares many of the same endorsements as Cynthia Hawthorne, including multiple City Council members, and a majority of the current school board. He has co-chaired multiple winning ballot measures that garnered more local funding for the districts, including Measure P and Measures I and J. He also currently serves on the Green Schools Committee, which he helped to co-found.

Deb Tracy-Proulx (Incumbent)

Deb Tracy-Proulx is a former UCSC librarian and current stay at home mom with 2 sons in the school district. She has been endorsed by a majority of of the current Santa Cruz City Council (including former Mayor Hilary Bryant), and a majority of the current school board. Her focus areas and experience includes providing more local funding by serving as the treasurers for Measures P, I and J; serving as co-chair of the Wellness Committee and recently serving on the City’s Public Safety Task Force.

Jeremy Shonick is running for one of the in the city seats.

Jeremy Shonick is running for one of the in the city seats.

Jeremy Shonick

Jeremy Shonick is a former Santa Cruz City Schools teacher with 28 years of experience teaching history and english. He has also served as Vice-President of the Teachers Union. He has been endorsed by a handful of local labor organizations including the SEIU and local teacher’s union, as well as a number of local elected leaders. His focus areas include the need for more community outreach and stakeholder engagement, strategic planning, and the need for greater transparency and accountability on the school board.


  1. Chris Nunez says:

    So, I’m wondering why these three incumbents have their material on this site, but the other candidates don’t! Please explain what this ‘Civinomics’ site is doing. Is this post a ‘campaign’ post, is it being paid for, and will the other candidates be given an opportunity to post?

    I am seriously concerned about this.

    • greenrobert says:

      Hey Chris, so this piece is not in favor or against any candidate(s). I included pictures for all of the candidates, but lumped the 3 incumbents together as they are running together. However, I have not included any materials other than their pictures and websites. I have linked to all of the candidates websites, including those of Thompson and Shonick, simply click on their name to visit their site. The purpose of this post was to document the difficult and complex nature of Santa Cruz City School Governance, each candidate description follows a fairly standard and uniform format. Nothing has been paid for by anyone.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Does the school district provide full health benefits to current board members?

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