By Pat Lynch
NEWBURY PARK, CA – In an unprecedentedly early campaign attack, a leftist group supporting CVUSD school board candidate Lauren Gill sent out a hit piece mailer against incumbent Sandee Everett on July 18, 2020. Everett, a mother of five with a master’s degree in education, lives in Newbury Park and has served as a board trustee since 2016. The distasteful mailer is noteworthy because local school board campaigns typically don’t start out this negative, and also because local campaigns traditionally don’t start mailings until after Labor Day.
The mailer was sent by Conejo Together, which is a leftist political group based in Thousand Oaks. The group was originally named “The Committee in Support of Fitzgerald, Goldberg, and Gorback for CVUSD School Board 2018.” All three of those candidates are affiliated with the local hate group Indivisible Conejo. The group now wants yet another two members of Indivisible Conejo on the school board, Lauren Gill and Karen Sylvester. Conejo Together acts as the unofficial political arm of Indivisible Conejo, because Conejo Together can accept political donations and make expenditures in support or against candidates for office. The two groups, along with the union, spent around $200,000 in the 2018 election to get a majority block vote for themselves (of 3 trustees) onto the school board. This majority has never voted against anything proposed by the superintendent (who was also selected by the union) since their election.
The mailer is so over-the-top in its deceptiveness that it begs for fact-checking. The mailer (shown below) is covered with a collage of “headlines” critical of Everett. The designers seem to be trying to convey that there has been a lot of negative news reporting about Everett. This is deceptive, since nearly all of the headlines are actually from letters to the editor, not news stories. Most of these letters were written by Conejo Together or Indivisible Conejo members. So, apparently, their process was to write nasty letters about Sandee to the newspaper, then use the headlines from those letters to paste into a toxic mailer that attempts to trick people into thinking those headlines were from actual news articles. That is a cynical and dirty strategy that is unworthy of our friendly Newbury Park community.
The other side of the mailer pushes the false narrative that it is censorship to place an asterisk next to books containing graphic depictions of child rape.
The mailer also accuses Everett of encouraging parents to leave the District, but there is no evidence that she has ever said anything like that. When asked about this accusation, Everett responded, “I have heard them make this accusation before. It is confusing because I always promote the public schools. They seem to be referring to the fact that I have accepted invitations to speak at alternative education conferences. At these events, most of the other speakers promote educational options that are not public schools. I think that it is important for someone to be there to represent public education,” Everett continued. “My critics seem to think that I am responsible for what every other speaker says, but that is not a reasonable position to take. We will never resolve our enrollment crisis if we don’t build bridges in the alternative education community. I think that all of our school board members – not just me – should be speaking at these conferences and promoting public education.”
Everett’s entire presentation at the particular conference in question was recorded and is posted on her YouTube channel. I have reviewed it and she never said anything encouraging parents to leave CVUSD.
The mailer also claims that Everett has made “bogus accusations of corruption.” The mailer did not provide any evidence of this, so Conejo Together needs to provide exact quotes of these accusations allegedly made by Everett. I have looked for them but I have not been able to find them in the board meeting recordings. What I have seen, however, are a lot of sincere questions by Everett with highly defensive responses by district officials. Perhaps they just inferred the accusations.
Regarding the budget, Everett voted against the District’s plan to borrow $25 million, which would require paying a lot of interest. Everett instead supported the idea that the District should use their rainy-day funds, which are free. She also indicated that giving $3.2 million in salary raises during a budget crisis is irresponsible and that sacrifices need to be made. She stated that raises can be reinstated when the budget stabilizes. The District will receive $25 million less than normal in state funding during the 2020-21 school year.
So who is behind this effort to dishonestly smear Sandee, and who is paying for it? Not surprisingly, Trustee Betsy Connolly is on the 2020 Conejo Together donor list. In the 2016 election, Everett received 7,000 more votes than Connolly and 9,000 more votes than Peggy Buckles. Everett thus replaced Buckles, a close friend of Connolly, who has shown visible animosity toward Everett ever since during board meetings.
Who else is part of this organization using deceptive political tactics in Newbury Park? Above (at the top of this article) is a group photo of Conejo Together taken during the 2018 school board campaign. This photo is on the Conejo Together website and Facebook page. Several key people and donors have been circled. Party affiliation is taken from public voter registration records. They are numbered from left to right:
- Jill Magnante (Democrat) – High school teacher. Magnante currently runs political campaign operations for the local teachers’ union (UACT). Magnante donated $250 to Conejo Together prior to the controversial mailer.
- Jon Cummings (Democrat) – Professional community organizer for leftist organization MoveOn.org and leader of Indivisible Conejo. His wife donated $600 to Conejo Together prior to the controversial mailer.
- Jenny Fitzgerald (Other) – CVUSD school board member. Endorsed by the Democratic Party in 2018. Ran for school board as part of the 3-person slate promoted by the union and Conejo Together in 2018.
- Mary Anne Van Zuyle (Democrat) – Designer of the new CVUSD voting areas. Founder and Treasurer for Conejo Together. Donated $600 to Conejo Together prior to the controversial mailer.
- Betsy Connolly (Democrat) – CVUSD school board member and Democratic Party activist. Donated $1,700 to Conejo Together prior to the controversial mailer.
- Bill Gorback (Democrat) – CVUSD school board member elected in 2018 on Conejo Together / Union slate.
- Cindy Goldberg (Democrat) – CVUSD school board member elected in 2018 on the 3-person slate of the union and Conejo Together. Goldberg is the paid Executive Director of Conejo Schools Foundation and has a free office at CVUSD headquarters where she runs her organization.
- Lauren Gill (Democrat) – Candidate for CVUSD school board running against Everett in Voting Area 5 (Newbury Park). Gill is a manager at Pearson, a major supplier of educational materials to CVUSD.
- Colleen Briner-Schmidt (Democrat) – CVUSD teachers’ union (UACT) president. CVUSD pays her salary as union president.
The residents of the Conejo Valley do not like these distasteful campaign tactics. They are both dishonest and divisive and only serve to create hard feelings. After November 3rd we will all still be neighbors and our children and grandchildren will still be attending school together. Local politics really needs to stay civil, or else we will lose our sense of community. It is one thing to carelessly rage against a national politician that you will never meet. It is quite another thing to do that to a member of your own community. The leaders and donors of Conejo Together need to do some soul searching about whether they really think it is okay to drag the whole community down in order to achieve short term political goals. Let’s put community ahead of partisanship.
Disclaimer: this is an editorial, so all opinions expressed are my own. There is indeed a pro-Sandee bias in this article, which is expected in an opinion piece. I support Sandee Everett’s bid for re-election, not because of any ill feelings toward her opponent, but because Sandee has done a great job as a school board member. She stands up for students and parents, and seems to be the only board member that cares about the budget.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.
Pat Lynch is a resident of Ventura County