Education Matters: Parent group researched by teachers union


The San Dieguito Union High School District offices in Encinitas. (Google Street View photo)

Marsha Sutton

Recently uncovered emails reveal that the California Teachers Association engaged in research, some have called it spying, on the local bipartisan Parent Association group.

Initially focused on the San Dieguito Union High School District, the Parent Association was founded in late 2020 to reopen schools when most public schools were closed for pandemic reasons.

The nonprofit PA group expanded almost at once to include parents representing the San Diego County unified school districts of Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos and Vista, and now is a statewide organization that supports and helps empower parents as the best advocates for their children.

Education Matters by Marsha SuttonIn February 2021, the group successfully challenged union efforts to keep schools closed by filing a lawsuit to reopen them.

“We are parents who knew that prolonged school closures were harmful for children,” PA co-founder and San Dieguito chapter director Allison Stratton wrote in an email. “We knew it at the time and we have certainly been proven right.

“We weren’t organized before the pandemic, and we certainly did not have any money in our coffers. We came together to fight for our children’s lives.”

Today, those efforts by the Parent Association extend well beyond pandemic-related school closures and mask mandates.

The PA advocates for independent school board members who put students’ needs first, something PA organizers say the unions do not do.

Teachers unions advocate for teachers, not students. Sometimes those interests overlap — but certainly not always.

Whatever one’s personal leanings, it’s nevertheless a remarkable story of how desperate the money-heavy CTA and local teachers unions were to fight an organized effort by parents to advocate on behalf of their children.

The California Teachers Association was established in 1863 and is one of the largest and most powerful teachers unions in the state with over 300,000 members, according to the CTA website.

Money from unions is often used to influence the election of union-supported school board candidates who then support pro-union policies and expenditures.

After controlling the school board for decades, the San Dieguito Faculty Association union became agitated when in 2020 voters elected a third independent board member who joined two others not endorsed by the union.

The Parent Association’s involvement in support of those three (of five) independent trustees, and the PA’s successful lawsuit to reopen schools, apparently drew the attention of the CTA.

In emails provided to the PA through a public records request, CTA strategic research specialist Ann Swinburn sent an email to San Dieguito residents and union allies asking for assistance for information on the Parent Association.

“Thank you for reaching out,” wrote back attorney Michele Macosky, whose office is located in Carmel Valley. “We have been collecting information and would be very happy to share/collaborate.”

She then asked if other parents could be included in the discussion.

Swinburn replied, “As long as they are folks you all trust, I’m good.”

San Dieguito activists Heather Dugdale, Holly Butte and Adam Fischer (listed in the revealed emails as reported and linked by the New York Post) were then invited to connect with Swinburn and Macosky via a livestreamed meeting.

The purpose of the meeting, according to Macosky’s email, was “to share information” and uncover “some of the ideological leaning of groups that are funding the reopen lawsuits.”

Email requests for comment have gone unanswered as of publication time from Dugdale, Macosky and Swinburn.

The story, covered by numerous media outlets, “has gone viral,” PA co-founder Stratton stated. “It has captured the outrage parents feel knowing that a political organization conspired against parents who knew that schools could and should have opened fall 2020.”

“We were horrified to see the extent to which the CTA and their allies malign parents who advocate for their children’s well-being,” Parent Association co-founder and executive director Ginny Merrifield said. “Long-term school closures revealed how little the union cared about the children.”

Merrifield and Stratton said they believe the CTA was trying to uncover any connection between the Parent Association and ultra-right-wing ideology.

Merrifield said the PA has no ties to any political group and that parents wanted only to look out for their children’s best interests and get them back in school.

“Parents want nothing more than to have a seat at the table,” she said. “They want a school board that represents family’s interests and doesn’t just rubber stamp the union agenda.”

Parents united and came together and created a threat to the union agenda, she said. And that “has a chilling effect” on public education.

Lance Christensen, candidate for California Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a statement on his home page: “Conducting opposition research is a common practice in political campaigns. But to have the teachers union dedicate personnel to politically target moms and dads protecting their own children and expressing their first amendment rights is both startling and disgusting.

“Entrenched special interests have used their war chests over the last two and a half years to intimidate and threaten anyone who dares to challenge their ineffective reign over public education. This must end.

“School closures demanded by these unions have single-handedly resulted in decades of learning loss, declining public school enrollment, and the lowest literacy rate in the nation. The good teachers in California want to focus on reading and writing, not cloak and dagger operations that further divide our communities.”

Christensen is running against current state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who is backed by the union.

Parents weren’t represented before, when everything was “going well” and school board members were union-aligned, Merrifield said, emphasizing that independent school board members present a threat to the unions and are more important now than ever before.

At San Dieguito, losing the union-backed board majority has been a fierce focus of the union, which Parent Association leaders say has resulted in orchestrated efforts to destabilize the district and employ tactics aimed at disrupting board meetings and reframing issues.

In 2020, the San Dieguito school board “shifted from a body that had long had a majority of trustees backed by the teachers union to one with a majority not supported by the union,” reported a July 2 article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Duncan Brown, president of the San Dieguito teachers union, said in the Union-Tribune article: “The union is not responsible for district’s ongoing problems.”

His quote from that article, which essentially admits that the union and its allies are indeed responsible for the district’s turmoil, says it best: “When we don’t have candidates that view things similarly (as the union), we have the chaos that we’re now seeing.”

Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha[at]

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.

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