Schools

Mah pulls ahead in close race for county ed board

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Left Photo Courtesy of Grace Mah; Right Photo Courtesy of Melissa Baten Caswell
Grace Mah, left, is over three percentage points ahead of challenger Melissa Baten Caswell, right, with an estimated 87% of the vote totaled countywide.

Incumbent Grace Mah is over three percentage points ahead of challenger Melissa Baten Caswell in the race for the local seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Education, but neither candidate had declared victory or conceded, as of the Town Crier’s Monday press deadline.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, Mah led with 51.83% support, while challenger Melissa Baten Caswell sat at 48.17%. An estimated 87% of the votes have been totaled countywide, with updated results released daily.

Mah said she is feeling good, but isn’t claiming victory just yet.

“It’s certainly been a really challenging race, so that’s why I’m still crossing my fingers and toes,” she said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”

For her part, Baten Caswell said she wants to wait to see the final results once all the votes are tallied. She has served on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education since 2008, and in her most recent election to the board, she said the race came down to a recount and that it took roughly a month to determine the outcome.

“I think I had a groundswell of local support that was inspirational and I’m just hoping it shows up in the ballots,” Baten Caswell said.

This normally relatively obscure race has drawn an unusual amount of money and attention this election cycle, with more than $500,000 in campaign contributions pouring in. Mah had raised $323,311.32 as of the campaign finance disclosure period ending Oct. 17. Baten Caswell had collected $180,255.95.

This is the tightest election Mah has seen since first being appointed to the board in 2007. She has won each of her previous races with more than 60% of the vote.

Mah attributed the closer results this time in part to the influx of money. Calling it a “financial arms race,” Mah said that campaigning and fundraising by Baten Caswell early in the race meant she had to catch up and fundraise herself later on.

Baten Caswell led in fundraising at the end of the campaign finance disclosure period running through Sept. 19, with $139,722.60 to Mah’s $79,884.99. However, Mah then pulled ahead, raising $323,311.32 by mid-October, to Baten Caswell’s $180,255.95.

Baten Caswell said she raised money early on to be able to reach voters throughout the area that the seat on the county board covers. She said her money came overwhelmingly from local individuals, rather than the “out of town” groups who donated to Mah late in the race.

Mah received large contributions from political action committees supporting charter schools. That included a combined $180,000 from the Charter Public Schools PAC (plus more in nonmonetary contributions) before the Oct. 17 deadline. She has since received another $36,500 from the PAC.

Baten Caswell’s largest contributors were Steve Brown, Mark Goines and Sangeeth Peruri, who each gave $10,000. Goines and Peruri are former Los Altos School District trustees, and Peruri managed Baten Caswell’s campaign. She also received nonmonetary contributions of campaign literature and mailings from the East Side Teachers Association Political Action Committee, valued at a combined $30,429.35.

Priorities

If she ends up being re-elected, Mah said her priorities will be ensuring high-quality education for all children, with a particular focus on early education and a goal of bringing universal preschool to the county.

If Baten Caswell ends up catching up and winning, she said she wants to focus on increasing the support the county office of education provides school districts, so they aren’t operating in separate silos.

The county board oversees the Santa Clara County Office of Education, whose functions include providing educational services, and operating its own schools for groups including incarcerated youth, those who have been expelled, students with disabilities and migrant students. The county also operates early-learning programs for children age 5 and under and oversees the programs and finances of the charter schools it approves, including Bullis Charter School.

The county board is made up of seven members, each serving a different geographic area. Mah and Baten Caswell are competing for the Area 1 seat, which covers the Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, Mountain View Los Altos Union High and Palo Alto Unified school districts, as well as parts of the Fremont Union High and Sunnyvale school districts.

For continued updates as more results are released, check back at losaltosonline.com.

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