By Megan Michelson
In the Nov. 8 midterm election — for which ballots were mailed this week — six candidates are running for three seats on the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s board of trustees. On the ballot are Dianna “Deedee” Driller, Shannon Hansen, Richard Ludke, Patrick Mooney, Denyelle Nishimori, and Heather Whitney. It’s the most heated school board race this community has seen in years.
The TTUSD school board is made up of five trustees, each of whom serve a four-year term and represent a specific region within the district. It has been many years since a candidate has run opposed for local school board seats. So, why the sudden onslaught of candidates?
“This is the lowest level of government action you can get in on relatively simply,” said Driller, who’s served on the TTUSD Board of Trustees for the past 12 years and is currently running for reelection — the only incumbent in the race. “There are people who were upset at the process by which we as a board and a district followed COVID protocols and state mandates. Those are definitely some of the comments coming at us.”
In many parts of the country and right here in Tahoe, hot-button issues are prompting parents and other community members to run for school board. Many of these are seeking elected positions for the first time. Nationally and locally, we are also seeing grassroots efforts from conservative political advocacy groups that are supporting candidates at the local level to fight what they see as government mismanagement.
Throughout the past several years, particularly during the COVID pandemic, traditionally nonpartisan school boards across the country — including here in the Tahoe/Truckee region — have become battlegrounds, venues for frustrated citizens to air their grievances. At normally quiet and under-attended school board meetings, there has been public outcry over how school districts have handled certain issues, including mask mandates, remote learning, and vaccine requirements.
In a September 2021 letter from Vernon Billy, executive director of California School Boards Association, to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Billy described what he called a “hostile climate” at school board meetings around the state. “Nothing in recent memory could have prepared trustees for the onslaught they face today as citizens lash out on a variety of topics, most notably opposition to state mandates and local COVID-19 mitigation measures,” Billy wrote.
Locally, protests at school board meetings during the past couple of years have shown community discord. “We had a small group of people with strong opinions,” said Gaylan Larson, a TTUSD school board trustee who was appointed to the role in 2010 and who’s stepping down this fall. “We have about 4,000 students in the district and about 40 people who were upset. My belief was that because of our national situation, people became very outspoken and belligerent.”
According to the California School Boards Association, roughly half of the approximately 5,000 school board seats in the state are up for election this year. Many of those seats are now being hotly contested, including the board positions here in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, which crosses into three counties — Placer, Nevada, and El Dorado — and has 12 schools and more than 4,000 students.
Meet the Candidates
Three of five TTUSD trustee areas — 1, 4, and 5 — are up for election, with two candidates vying for each seat. Note that voters throughout the district vote for all areas and each trustee is expected to represent the entire district, not individual areas. Who’s running for the three vacant seats, and what do you need to know about them?
Trustee Area 1
Ludke, who has nonprofit board experience and has served as a youth leader, says on his website: “When our schools closed in 2020, I saw the devastating effects on our students and our community. To ensure students’ needs are put first, I’m running for office to take action.” Ludke’s website states his priorities are “protecting the critical role of local government and parent rights in education.”
Mooney is a parent, an educator, and an athletic coach who taught English at Truckee High School for 33 years until retiring this past spring. His campaign positions include embracing diversity so every child feels like they belong, ensuring the safety of our students through every measure possible, and doing our best to retain and attract quality teaching staff within the district. “I’d like to continue to build upon the work that the board has done when it comes to literacy and helping to close the education gap that exists in our district,” Mooney said.
Trustee Area 4
Nishimori, the community development director for the Town of Truckee and a parent to two school-age kids, is running on the belief that school curriculums must be based on teaching truth through integrity, freedom, honesty, and a sense of belonging, according to her campaign website. Staffing will be a big priority as well. “It’s important to look at the morale of existing staff while also advertising for available positions,” Nishimori said.
Whitney, a longtime Truckee resident and real estate agent who formerly owned and operated Morgan’s Lobster Shack in Truckee and has a son in second grade, is running for her first elected position. “After the last couple of years, there seems to be a common notion that parents and teachers were not heard,” she says. “A lot of decisions were based on fear of the unknown. I want transparency and communication with our parents, teachers, and community on what is happening in the district and why decisions are being made.”
Trustee Area 5
Driller, a longtime educator who’s worked as a ski team coach, substitute teacher, and preschool teacher, is focused on continuing the efforts already put in place by the board. “I love public education and what it does for every child,” Driller said. “We’re all equals, and we need to work together in the best interest of our students. We need to improve our career pathways: We need bus drivers; we need teachers. How can we support our community with our schools?”
Hansen, a mother to four children who has served on the board of a preschool and been a school volunteer, is running for public office for the first time. After expressing dissatisfaction with the way the school district operated during the COVID pandemic, the Homewood resident decided to run for school board. “My children are my reason,” she said in a closing statement in the recent candidate’s forum. “As a parent on the school board, the decisions that I make I believe carry a heavy weight and responsibility with them. I felt called last year to run for the school board.”
At a candidate’s forum on Oct. 4, four out of the six candidates were present to answer questions submitted from the community. Whitney, who was not at the forum, told organizers that she was unavailable; Ludke, also absent, did not respond to the several emails that were sent inviting him to the forum, according to the forum’s organizer.
According to campaign finance reports collected from Placer County’s elections office, all six candidates have raised money mostly from small-sum donations from individual donors, totaling at most several thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
A Divided Field
A dividing line seemingly splits the pool into two groups. Mooney, Nishimori, and Driller are running as a slate of candidates and all three are endorsed by the Tahoe Truckee Education Association, the local teacher’s union that represents some 280 educators. Local campaign signs list Hansen, Ludke, and Whitney as an opposing group. Though the three of them hosted a meet-the-candidates event in Tahoe City together in late September, Whitney and Hansen say they are running their own independent campaigns and are not officially running as a slate.
Whoever takes the three seats up for grabs on election day could substantially shift how the school board interacts and the decisions the board makes. About 80 percent of the community doesn’t have kids in the school system, but that doesn’t mean this is a vote you shouldn’t care about.
“Our children are our future. That should matter to everyone,” Hansen said. “And our district is funded in part by property taxes. Whether or not you have kids in the district, you’re funding the school district. Don’t you want to know how the school board is using your tax dollars?”
The slate of Mooney, Nishimori, and Driller represent the establishment — left-leaning educators and government officials. The unofficial other group stands for breaking that status quo, with elements of a nationwide effort to elect leaders who lean to the right at the most entry-level stages of government, including school districts and elections offices.
If you ask Whitney, she’ll tell you it’s time for a new guard. She says many of the current school board members have been there long enough and many were appointed, not elected, to the roles. “It’s time for some new analytical thinking, as well as thinking outside the box for better solutions,” Whitney said.
Representatives from the teacher’s union see it differently. “We don’t think it is hyperbole to say that this election may be the most important one for the future of our school district,” reads a statement from the TTEA sent to Moonshine Ink. “Our endorsed candidates are qualified, experienced, and collaborative and support a values and science-based education in a diverse and inclusive learning environment led by educators in collaboration with parents versus one shaped by personal or religious values.”
To determine which candidates to endorse, before announcing their endorsements the teacher’s union PAC reached out to all declared candidates who made their contact information public.
“There are candidates running in this election who would ban books from our libraries and classrooms, limit curriculum choices, or micromanage teaching decisions by teachers and impose their personal beliefs on all of our students,” the statement continues. “Our students and families deserve an education where they learn to think critically in a diverse and inclusive learning environment.” The union’s political action committee issued $1,000 each to Mooney, Nishimori, and Driller for their campaigns.
Ludke hosted a campaign event at Donner Lake in late September with conservative guest speakers Mari Barke and her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Barke, both former school board members from Orange County who have been openly against mask wearing throughout the pandemic and have opposed teaching critical race theory and ethnic studies in schools.
Ludke and Hansen have been endorsed by the American Council, a Rocklin-based political action committee focused on, according to its website, “electing conservative, Godly men and women to local and state positions across the nation to counter the depravity we see in America.” The organization works to recruit, train, and support candidates who “align with a Biblical worldview” to get them elected to office, particularly to local school boards, and they’ve donated nearly $500,000 to those efforts.
Hansen and Ludke told Moonshine Ink this week that they weren’t notified of the endorsement from the American Council. Hansen recently requested that her name be removed from their endorsement list. “I do not believe church belongs in schools,” Hansen said. “I believe that religion is a family subject and the home is where it should be taught, if parents want.”
According to Tanner DiBella, the 27-year-old founder of the American Council, who also serves in a leadership position at Rocklin’s Destiny Christian Church, every candidate the organization endorses is sent a letter notifying them of the endorsement. (Hansen and Ludke said they did not receive this.) The American Council provides free, optional training for any candidates they endorse — that training is designed to teach candidates how to run and win a campaign and how to lead once elected. According to DiBella, Hansen and Ludke did not participate in any training.
“We have an extensive vetting process when endorsing a candidate,” DiBella said. “Most candidates fill out our endorsement request application. This gives us an idea of their set of values, their campaign viability, and their character. Many times, we will meet with a candidate over Zoom to ask additional questions.”
According to campaign finance reports from the California Secretary of State’s office, the American Council donated $500 each to Hansen’s and Ludke’s campaigns on Sept. 15. Hansen said she received a $500 check without any explanation as to where it was from, and as a result, she did not deposit it. Ludke said he never received a $500 check from American Council. “I’ve come to understand that the American Council endorsed me without my knowledge and apparently my consent wasn’t required,” Ludke told Moonshine Ink.
All the candidates recognize that despite the differing opinions in the election, everyone’s first priority should be the same. “I don’t want this to be a divided community,” Driller said. “We’re not out for our individual goals or agendas. We’re part of this greater effort to make our community the best it can be.”