Voter enthusiasm for school board elections is typically pretty low — unless your board happens to have a raging plagiarism scandal. Such is the case in the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, where board members have spent the past four months dealing with fallout from fellow trustee Dan Johnson's plagiarized speech at Arcata High School's graduation ceremony. The incident has led to contentious board meetings, accusations of Brown Act violations and, on Sept. 10, a 3-1 board vote asking for Johnson's resignation, which he has refused to give.
The storyline adds drama to the Nov. 5 election. Will voters prove sympathetic to embattled incumbents Dana Silvernale, Mike Pigg and Colleen Toste? Or will they opt for a clean slate with challengers Brian Lovell and Mark Suchanek?
The district encompasses Arcata and McKinleyville high schools as well as Tsurai High, Pacific Coast High, Northern Humboldt Community Day School, Six Rivers Charter School and Riverbend Education Program. As 55-year-old Brian Lovell sees it, some fresh blood would be good.
Lovell is an Indiana transplant who moved to the area 1979 to attend Humboldt State and never left. While earning a single-subject teaching credential and a master's in English, Lovell worked in after-school and preschool programs. After graduating he returned to that work, eventually finding his way to the Arcata Elementary School District, where he's been the director of Extended Day Programs for more than two decades. Lovell lives in McKinleyville with his wife, a kindergarten teacher at Loleta Elementary, and his 15-year-old daughter, a sophomore at Arcata High. His 18-year-old daughter, an Arcata High graduate, is on a year-long exchange in Germany.
Lovell's a cheerful guy, with warm eyes and a bushy white mustache that frames his easy smile when he talks about family and work. So it's a little surprising to hear the hardness that creeps into his voice when he brings up the Johnson controversy.
The blow-up inspired Lovell to attend school board meetings and get serious about running for a seat, he said. Incensed with Johnson's speech, Lovell wrote letters to the Arcata Eye and McKinleyville Press calling on the local businessman to resign.
So far that position seems to be working well for him: He's raised enough money to print festive red, white and blue yard signs and is endorsed by the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee. But Lovell says he's not running strictly because of Johnson controversy. He feels his years spent steeped in the intricacies of the Arcata Elementary School District have helped him develop skills that would be useful to the board.
"While I was at the board meetings this summer I realized, hey, this is what I do at work. They are asking questions that are just routine for me," he said. "School finance is obviously very complicated, and while I don't pretend to be an expert I do have a pretty good grasp on how the budgets work."
Lovell says there are some big issues facing the district, like managing Measure Q bond funds and the changeover to Common Core testing, a new set of national education standards focused on technology, critical thinking and problem solving set to take effect next year. He also has some pet projects he'd like to work on, such as building up the district's arts programs and finding a way to fully finance the College and Career Center at Arcata High while bringing a similar program to McKinleyville.
Mark Suchanek, meanwhile, said the Johnson controversy had nothing to do with his decision to run. The 53-year-old says his deep ties to McKinleyville and its high school could help broaden the board's perspective. Born in the seaside town, Suchanek graduated from McKinleyville High in 1978 and after living for a few years in Arcata and Eureka he returned and built his house on the property where he grew up. His two sons, now in their late 20s, also graduated from McKinleyville High, and his wife worked for several years as the principal's secretary. In recent years, Suchanek has been volunteering to run the scoreboard at basketball and football games.
He isn't running on a particular platform, but if elected he said he would emphasize the value of extracurricular activities.
"I think a lot of students stay in school because of those activities," he said. "Looking back, I played sports, and I know for a lot of the guys I went to school with, things like baseball and football were what kept them in school. That's the same for programs like drama and band."
Suchanek twice put his name in for vacant seats: once in 2008 after Shane Brinton's election to the Arcata City Council (Johnson was selected instead) and again in 2011 following the death of longtime board member Sari Toste (whose daughter Colleen Toste was tapped as her replacement).
This time around, Suchanek said his motivation is no different. "My main reason for running is just to give choices. I think I have a common sense approach."
For incumbent Mike Pigg, the election represents a chance to move past the Johnson uproar and get back to business. The 49-year-old Arcata native and former triathlete admits that it took some arm-twisting from a former board member to get him involved back in 2005, but it's a job he has grown to love.
Pigg said he doesn't come to the meetings with his own agenda. "I am there to listen to the community and their concerns and input and listen to the administration, staff and students and support their good decisions," he said.
While enthused by what the board has been able to accomplish during his tenure — he points to Measure Q, the $25.8 million bond measure approved by district voters in 2010 to upgrade facilities at McKinleyville and Arcata high schools — Pigg is also frank about the fact that the blowback from Johnson's speech has made things turbulent.
"I feel that the papers really blew things out of proportion," he said. "I think the board has done a good job up to this point, better than we have [been] made out to be. The whole issue was way over-dramatized."
At the Sept. 10 board meeting, Pigg was visibly uncomfortable joining the 3-1 majority to ask for Johnson's resignation, and even though Johnson has refused to oblige, Pigg said it's time to leave the issue behind.
Serving on the school board was never part of McKinleyville-native Colleen Toste's plan, either. But when your mother is dying of cancer and asks you to take on the job that meant the world to her — well, that's a hard thing to say no to, Toste said.
Toste stepped into her mother's 17-year-old board member shoes in December 2011 and the experience has been something of a whirlwind. A big chunk of Toste's two years of service has been spent getting up to speed. Toste said that, if re-elected, she wants to put her background in marketing to use for the board.
"I would really like to look at how we communicate with the public," said Toste, who earned a degree in the field from Santa Clara University and worked in Humboldt Bank's marketing department before it was bought out by Umpqua Bank in 2004. "People always want more information." As an example, Toste said she wants to ensure that district residents are kept up to date on how Measure Q funds are being allocated.
"At this point I feel really well-equipped to serve," she said. "Especially in the last four months, it's safe to say that I've received my own education on the role of board members."
Much of that education came while navigating the murky waters in the wake of Johnson's speech. She said there's been a lot of misunderstanding about the board's actions this summer, and she worries that will be reflected at the polls. Looking forward, Toste believes the best thing for the district will be time.
Dana Silvernale agrees. The 66-year-old Mattole Valley Charter School special education teacher was the trustee who asked to have the Johnson issue listed as an action item on the Sept. 10 agenda.
"And it made me pretty sad, but I felt that some action was needed," she said. "We couldn't just ignore what was being said."
Like Pigg, Silvernale feels local media inflamed the issue. "The papers were blaming the school board for inaction, but then we took action and made a statement and were accused of coddling Dan," she said. "The lines just got so blurred."
The only incumbent not born and raised in the area, Silvernale is also the only incumbent actively campaigning for re-election. Unlike Pigg and Toste, she has a long, specific list of things she wants to get done.
"I have the insight of 24 years of experience in teaching. ... They just don't have the same experience."
Silvernale's goals for a second term include revising the district's disciplinary policy to emphasize preventive measures over punishment, improving support for at-risk children, initiating monthly study sessions to track chronic absences, creating a unifying vision for the board and continuing to improve the quality of school lunches.
As for the Johnson controversy, Silvernale said, "People are paying attention now. I guess we will see what that means on Nov. 5."