Education Matters: Digesting an affront to voter rights


Election Day. (Photo by Element5 Digital, Unsplash)

Marsha Sutton

I thought I’d let this go, but some things just stick in your craw.

Which got me curious about the meaning of the phrase.

“Stuck in one’s craw means annoyed by something unpleasant but forced to accept it. This saying comes from food which is collected in a fowl’s preliminary stomach, called a craw, where it is predigested before going on into the gizzard to finally dissolve …”

An unappetizing image for sure. But the point being that it’s an annoyance that won’t go away … or get digested easily.

And that perfectly describes my reaction to what happened at the April 11 Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education meeting.

Instead of holding a special election, district trustees decided to appoint a replacement for disgraced Trustee Scott Wooden, who resigned in February after he was just re-elected to his fourth term in November 2022.

I couldn’t seem to digest that bizarre April 11 appointment process — which was particularly hard to swallow after the San Diego County Board of Supervisors recently decided to hold a special election to replace former Supervisor Nathan Fletcher rather than appoint someone.

Education Matters by Marsha SuttonThe Fletcher issue is relevant because the similarities are striking. Fletcher, like Wooden, was just re-elected to his position last November. Both resigned with nearly four years left in their terms. And Fletcher, like Wooden, resigned under allegations of sexual misconduct, behavior that disgraced the offices they both held.

It would have been so much easier for the county supervisors to simply appoint someone, like Del Mar Union chose to do. But they didn’t.

Supervisors said in a May 3 San Diego Union-Tribune story that “the length of time that remains in Fletcher’s term and the disturbance his abrupt departure has caused made it hard to justify appointing a replacement.”

The League of Women Voters weighed in on the Fletcher issue in a letter to the board that read in part, according to the U-T, that the League “supports filling a vacancy through the elective process whenever possible. This is consistent with a fundamental value of democracy … that voters should have the final say on who should represent them.”

In that same story, Carl Luna, who runs the University of San Diego’s Institute for Civil Civic Engagement, said constituents may not accept a new supervisor as legitimate if they aren’t able to vote for them.

“If you reach that office in any way but election, you’re going to be a bit tainted … because basically you were voted on by four people,” Luna is quoted as saying.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Nora Vargas said, “I don’t think four people should be making a decision about who should be on the board, especially when we have three and a half years to go.”

Yet in Del Mar, the school board tainted the electoral process by selecting someone unknown to most constituents, because the board majority didn’t like the voters’ choice.


Since the DMUSD board decided not to spend the money to hold a special election, the only honorable option should have been to respect voters and the principles of democracy by supporting Danielle Roybal to fill the vacancy.

Here’s why the district board betrayed voters.

Roybal was the fourth vote-getter in the November 2022 election, which happened only three months before Wooden’s resignation. The three open seats were filled by incumbents Wooden, Doug Rafner and Katherine Fitzpatrick.

Since the board chose not to hold a special election, Roybal should have been the obvious, logical, ethically correct choice to replace Wooden. Four individuals have no business appointing someone else when voters just months prior had their say.

As Roybal said in her public comments, “The community asks that their vote be represented.”

Of the four trustees, only Fitzpatrick supported Roybal. When she presented valid reasons why Roybal deserved the seat, she was met with crickets.

Fitzpatrick finally removed herself from the debate, saying, “For me it’s Danielle and no one else. I’ll let you guys figure it all out if you’re not going to vote for her.”

Why trustees Erica Halpern, Gee Wah Mok and Rafner chose to reject voter preference is misguided although clear, considering Roybal’s public platform.

She has been critical of DMUSD’s superintendent and the board majority over mismanagement of finances, lack of transparency, and mishandling of the special education department, among other complaints.

As a result, DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg and her backers on the board took exception to having Roybal join the club. Agitating for more transparency in district business and advocating for operational changes in the district’s special education department does not win you any friends in positions of power.

Regardless of anyone’s personal views, our democracy is based on voter choice — for better or worse. And three of the four trustees chose to disregard that basic democratic value.

After interviewing the applicants for Wooden’s seat at the April 11 meeting, board President Mok revealed all, saying that board members “should look at all the candidates and not those who ran most recently in the recent election.”

In other words, forget Roybal.

Voter choice denied

In a statement Fitzpatrick gave to me after the special board meeting, she said, “It is unfortunate that my fellow trustees did not see the merits in supporting the candidate who received such overwhelming community support. … perhaps because they don’t like what she has to say or what she represents or feel threatened by it.”

Fitzpatrick said she supported Roybal because “she was the community’s top vote earner after Doug Rafner, and I respect the community’s voice. She is well-versed on the issues affecting DMUSD, advocates for transparency and community engagement, (and) she brings diversity to our board.”

Mentioning the hundreds of letters the board received in support of Roybal, Fitzpatrick said Roybal ran a strong campaign and showed “tremendous commitment to this district” — with “fire and passion.”

In her interview, Roybal listed her many qualifications and told the four board members sitting in judgment that she has a degree in finance and a master’s degree in business.

As the parent of an autistic fifth-grader in the district, her campaign message of the need for better oversight of the special education department resonated with other parents who say they have also, like Roybal, experienced inadequate care for their children.

Having a board member with a special needs child is “an added value,” said Fitzpatrick, who has three young children in the district — one in second grade, one in kindergarten, and the youngest who will start kindergarten in 2024.

After a tortuously lengthy and awkward debate, the three trustees finally selected Alan Kholos as the interim board member. Kholos will serve until the general election in November 2024, at which time he and anyone else may run for the remaining two years of Wooden’s term.

The selection of Kholos was hardly a mandate. Mok and Halpern refused to consider anyone else, Fitzpatrick would only support Roybal, and Rafner was lobbying forcefully for applicant Darren Gretler.

Rafner only reluctantly voted for Kholos after McClurg and Mok reminded him that a divided board that couldn’t agree would mean the district would be forced to hold a costly special election.

Interestingly, Kholos served on the Del Mar school board from 2012 to 2015, when he resigned after a work relocation. Gretler was appointed to replace Kholos.

Kholos no longer has children in the district and did not run for election in November 2022. In fact, the only applicant for the appointment in April who ran for the seat last November was … Roybal.

Democracy thwarted

The moment when I felt I couldn’t “digest” this appointment process happened after I heard trustee Rafner say this at the April 11 meeting: “I can’t think of anything that would be worse for kids than to put the district through the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars because their candidate didn’t win.”

The not-so-veiled threat was regarding Roybal’s supporters, who have made noises about gathering signatures on a petition to force a recall of the appointed applicant should that not be Roybal, which would require a special election.

I did not hear back from Rafner after I wrote him this email: “The fact is that Roybal did win, and you failed to support her. I’m unclear why the board refused to acknowledge that she put in the time, money and effort last November and none of the other candidates seeking to be appointed did any of that.”

With the previous election held just three months prior to Wooden’s resignation, it can be argued that the voters, if any board members care what voters want, had already spoken. The democratic process should have been followed. Voter preference was clear.

But Rafner, Mok and Halpern refused to even consider Roybal. Instead, the public was subjected to a long debate about the type of candidate the board wanted, rather than who the voters wanted.

Kholos seems a decent person. But if he didn’t want to run in November, why did he suddenly decide he wanted to serve in April? It’s just a back-door way in, without putting in the time, money and energy walking door to door campaigning as Roybal did.

When a governing body chooses someone who aligns most closely with their own and their superintendent’s personal priorities, but who doesn’t necessarily reflect the concerns of constituents, it is a tainted appointment — one that may ultimately, as Carl Luna suggested, be seen as illegitimate.

With Roybal coming in fourth in the November 2022 election — and as the only candidate from the election to seek the appointment — she was the winner in many ways. Except the one that counts.

And that sticks in my craw.

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

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