High Desert charter-school populist seeks David-Goliath win as superintendent seeks term 3

San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre faces a challenge from county Board of Education president Ken Larson on the June 2022 ballot.
San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre faces a challenge from county Board of Education president Ken Larson on the June 2022 ballot.

A gambling man might glance at the June ballot matchup for San Bernardino County superintendent and see something akin to a 1980s bout between Mike Tyson and, well, anyone else in a boxing ring.

Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre is wielding a much larger campaign treasure chest, endorsement list and social-media presence than the challenger, and taking a statesman’s tenor after two years as de facto leader of a 400,000-student school system’s countywide COVID-19 response.

But his sole opponent, county Board of Education president Ken Larson, is betting on one counter: an appetite among small schools, fed-up parents, and politically-frustrated citizens more broadly for a change in the current trajectory of K-12 education.

Early voting for the June 7 primary election in California started earlier this month, with Tuesday marking the last day to request a replacement mail ballot, and a number of San Bernardino County’s top elected officials are also vying to keep their jobs.

Alejandre is seeking a third term in his first race since cruising in 2018 as an incumbent with no challenger and no novel coronavirus in sight.

The superintendent is pitching voters on his role as an efficient and open-minded middle man for county residents, local officials, and state and federal agencies, specifically through the shake-ups, mandates and tech-focused changes in schooling since the pandemic emerged.

“With speed and efficiency, we were able to implement a robust testing and vaccination program for our students, staff and community,” Alejandre wrote in an email to the Daily Press.

“Our county office of education also served as a conduit for the delivery of PPE and test kits from (the state Department of Education) to our schools. We also launched distance learning education modules and resources as well as supplied students with laptops and hotspots.”

The challenger on the June ballot is Larson: a Victorville resident elected to the county education board in 2018, who separately serves as principal of “non-classroom based” charter school Alta Vista Innovation High School.

Larson’s taking a populist tenor with a platform of bolstered financial security, transparency and direct assistance to help schools “keep up with the myriad of changes that are just perpetuated by Sacramento on what seems like a daily basis.”

“We need to not just look at the San Bernardino city, the Victor Valley, the Hesperia – the big guys – and we need to look at Trona, look at Needles, look at Helendale,” Larson told the Daily Press. “These districts suffer from some of the laws that are passed, the enforcement of them, and the cost of implementing them.”

Meet the incumbent

The current superintendent won his first term in a three-horse race on the June 2014 ballot with about 76,000 votes, or 55% of the county total compared to about 41,000 votes for Rita Ramirez and 21,000 for Frank Garza.

That congested race didn’t include the incumbent at the time, Gary Thomas, who announced he wouldn’t run for re-election eight months earlier. Alejandre’s path to victory was easier on his second go-round, in 2018, when he ran unopposed and naturally secured 100% of the official 193,000 county-vote total.

Alejandre’s current position is the top of a ladder he has been climbing in his home county for more than three decades.

Born and raised in the City of San Bernardino, Alejandre first served 17 years in the 701st Combat Operations Squadron of the U.S. Air Force, and today is a lietuenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves as well as “an Air Force liaison officer for local high schools (who) is responsible for the recruitment/evaluation of prospective students for the Air Force Academy,” his campaign website states.

From 1989 to 2004, according to his LinkedIn, he was director of fiscal services for San Bernardino City Unified School District. He then became assistant superintendent of business services at Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District until 2008, when he jumped to the county role of deputy superintendent until his election to the head role he now holds.

Alejandre emphasized his personal stake in the job.

“My wife Barbara and I have been married for 35 years and are blessed to have three beautiful children,” he says, and “all of my children attended and graduated from public schools in San Bernardino County.”

He’s also riding high on an award from earlier this month — State Superintendent of the Year — from the nonprofit Association of California School Administrators, described on its website as “the largest umbrella organization for school leaders in the United States, serving more than 17,000 California educators.”

Meet the contender

Larson says he grew up working in construction until getting injured in his early 30s.

He then returned to school and graduated from Victor Valley College with a welding degree. That streamlined into his first job in academia, teaching a construction program at Excelsior Charter for 11 years. He was elected to the school board of Victor Valley Union High School District in 2006, and says he resigned from Excelsior to remove a conflict of interest so he could vote in favor of building a physical school for the charter institution from his school-board seat.

Ken Larson, principal of Alta Vista Innovation High School
Ken Larson, principal of Alta Vista Innovation High School

Larson lost the 2010 election for his seat on the high-school district board and ran unsuccessfully to regain it in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 races.

He was then elected in 2018 to be the county Board of Education trustee for Area A, which represents school districts in the High Desert, and was appointed in 2021 by the five-member body to be its president, a position he still holds.

Larson also returned to charter school work when he became the principal of Alta Vista Innovation after its launch in 2018, when the roughly 980-student Lucerne Valley Unified School District authorized its charter.

LVUSD Superintendent Peter Livingston says Alta Vista is “basically independent-study charter schools, where the kids, they’re homeschooled.”

“They serve mainly a lot of kids that have dropped out, or who need an alternative course of education,” Livingston said. “It might be pregnant mothers, it might be homeless kids.”

Alta Vista is technically based in Hesperia, but is accredited with 16 other “campuses” in places ranging from Adelanto to Riverside to Los Angeles.

“Ultimately, Alta Vista Innovation High School is a recovery school,” Larson says. “We work with students that regular school hasn't worked for. And I am watching students from all aspects from county schools — from Juvenile Hall, from regular school districts — coming in with third-and fourth-grade reading levels, and they're in the 11th grade.”

Different paths to the polls

The Alejandre for Superintendent 2022 campaign has raised about $121,000 from cash contributions since launching in mid-2018, when it started with almost $135,000 of cash, according to county Registrar of Voters disclosures.

The incumbent’s campaign has spent about $123,000 in the same time, with 68% of that spending occurring this year on items including campaign business cards, a “digital display board advertisement partially paid by Fontana Teachers Association,” and “Decorated Pastries for Campaign Watch Night.”

Larson, on the other hand, appears to have no campaign established for his superintendent run. Rather, he appears to have submitted only two filings in recent years to the county Registrar under his individual name, one in August 2020 and the other in August 2021.

“I anticipate that I will receive less than $2,000 and that I will spend less than $2,000 during the calendar year,” each filing states.

Alejandre’s campaign website lists well above 400 different endorsements of his campaign by public officials including California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, unions such as that of the county Sheriff’s Department and the Victor Valley Teachers’ Association, and private figures ranging from Toyota of San Bernardino owner Cliff Cummings to Codex DNA senior manager Ted Alejandre Jr.

Meanwhile, Larson has no campaign website. The county’s official candidate list points to his personal Facebook and Twitter, and an Instagram account called “kenforcountysup” that had 9 followers and 0 posts as of Sunday.

Larson isn’t looking to brew bad blood with a campaign of biting criticism against his opponent, contrary to the current race between Sheriff Shannon Dicus and private investigator Clifton Lee Harris.

“Ted’s done a good job, and he’s a good man,” Larson says, “but there's things that I've seen that I feel can be improved.”

Plans to spend a big budget?

The revised budget proposal for California’s upcoming fiscal year came out earlier this month with a $7.7 billion hike of planned funding for K-12 education statewide.

So, if San Bernardino County gets a big boost of state funding for its K-12 schools, how would each superintendent candidate push for it to be used?

Alejandre says that through his first two terms, “I have always been a proponent of decisions related to funding priorities being generated at the local level.”

“As our county is vast and encompasses diverse communities possessing unique needs, the governing bodies of each school district are elected to determine how best to support students by engaging with their learning communities,” the incumbent wrote in an email.

“If new funding were to become available, I would seek to direct these resources to our local education agencies to expand and further support the programs and services their parents, teachers, staff, community members and students have collectively determined are successfully producing positive results.”

Larson gave a similar answer, but says he’d also push for some funding to be put into a reserve to serve as a backstop in the case of a severe economic downturn, like that which followed the 2007-09 financial crisis.

“Maybe put some away for a rainy day to help out not just the county, but local districts,” he said, “because when it does come down, it’s going to come down hard, and there’s gotta be someone that can help.”

Larson says he also wants to expand financial transparency to the point where every taxpayer can examine every line item of county education spending, barring a legal need for confidentiality like ongoing-lawsuit expenses.

“We’re spending the public’s money, and the public has a full right to know where, if they want to know that detail, they need to know where every penny goes,” he said.

Public health measures

The effects of COVID-19 and responsive measures have created myriad effects and debates in schooling.

Alejandre says he “couldn’t be prouder of how our entire county schools team responded to every challenge COVID-19 created.”

He said the key to implementing testing, vaccination and virtual-schooling programs countywide was “preexisting collaborations with our partnering agencies including local hospitals,” and said fostering such collaborations “is a vital role of the County Superintendent position.

“Throughout the pandemic to this day, I also facilitate regular meetings between our district superintendents(,) SBCSS charter leaders and the county and state departments of public health,” he added. “This has made it possible for quick and strategic actions to be taken when needed as we continue to navigate the impacts of COVID-19.”

One aspect of the COVID response that Alejandre doesn’t believe the county superintendent should take the helm of is mandates.

“I do believe that health-related mandates should remain within the purview of our national, state and county medical experts,” the superintendent said, “as school officials do not possess the medical credentials needed for these important decisions.”

Larson took a different tone.

“I think COVID was grossly mismanaged from the top down,” he said. “Not that we didn’t need to protect our people and keep people alive. I 100% agree with that. But the messaging and the implementation was a problem.”

Larson pointed to school shutdowns as a decision that created fear and “caused angst amongst families.”

He says he would push for the county to help all school districts offer students the choice of a fully traditional schooling experience or a virtual one, depending on their level of comfort in a public health situation.

“I would have liked to see us handle the mask mandate slightly differently,” he added. “With the next wave that we are constantly told is coming, I'd like to work with the schools and find ways to not close the schools down.”

Stance on charter schools

Larson is a major advocate for charter schools, arguing that they fill gaps that traditional public schooling has left unaddressed.

“One of the biggest lies we've told as a nation to our students, is that no child should be left behind,” he said. “Did you ever notice, nobody started building new colleges, nobody started training new college teachers?”

As superintendent, Larson says he’d push for charter schools to be fully integrated and encouraged to take part in all services the county offers. He cited the county’s annual Mock Trial competition as one example.

“Mock Trial is run by the county, and it’s a nice program,” Larson said. “And yet we rarely see any charter schools. If you’ve got students who want to go and become attorneys, can you think of a better training format?”

Alejandre says he believes that “charters offer parents an additional option for their child and that is the decision that is reserved to the parents of students to make.”

“The County Superintendent does not have the authority to authorize charters,” he wrote.

“When charters are authorized by the district or county board of education, we always reach out to the charters to inform them of the opportunities, trainings and support the county office of education can provide to assist them with their programs.”

Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: High Desert charter-school populist seeks David-Goliath election win