California teachers union caught 'monitoring' parents who advocated school reopening

Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Lance Christiansen called the revelation "a scandal of the first order."
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond

California's statewide teachers union undermined White House talking points that redirect blame to Republicans for COVID-19 school closures that erased two decades of progress on math and reading scores and worsened racial learning gaps.

Public records posted by grassroots group Reopen California Schools show the California Teachers Association (CTA) launched a research effort in spring 2021, in coordination with allied parents, to sniff out the "ideological leaning" of funding sources for the Parent Association, which had sued to reopen schools that February.

Reopen California Schools dubbed the effort "opposition research" in a tweet thread Monday documenting the discussions initiated by CTA Strategic Research Specialist Ann Swinburn, who first protected and then deleted her Twitter account following the publicity.

"In case anyone was still wondering ... the total amount of dark-money collected since we were founded in June of 2020 is a whopping $0," the group tweeted.

"To suggest us parents were part of some dark-money conspiracy is not only absurd and insulting, but shows how far removed the California Teachers Association's priorities are from serving students and their families," founder Jonathan Zachreson wrote in an email. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Lance Christiansen called the revelation "a scandal of the first order," tagging incumbent Tony Thurmond to ask if he "support[s] the CTA spying on parents & children advocates?" 

Thurmond's office and campaign, backed by $8.5 million from CTA in 2018, didn't respond to Just the News queries.

The CTA effort is not the first by the educational establishment to covertly target parents critical of proposed and implemented policies and curricula during the pandemic.

Arizona's Scottsdale Unified School District launched an investigation last fall into whether school resources were used to "compile, access or modify" a private dossier on parents critical of Jann-Michael Greenburg, who was ousted as board president but refused to resign. Police found no criminal conduct

This summer, Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued Greenburg and the district for allegedly structuring meetings to "prohibit public comment" about a proposed mask mandate, applying content-based restrictions and cutting off speakers.

In Virginia's Loudoun County, near D.C., school board member Beth Barts participated in a private Facebook group that created lists of parents opposed to critical race theory and discussed infiltrating and shutting down their groups. 

Barts also suggested how "Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County" could get gym teacher Tanner Cross fired for speaking against a proposed transgender policy. The board voted to censure her for inflammatory social media activity and interactions with the public, and she resigned facing recall

Zachreson got the CTA emails from Allison Stratton, director of the Parent Association, a "bipartisan" nonprofit whose chapters advocate for school reopening and against COVID mandates in California schools.

It challenged CTA's December 2020 lawsuit on behalf of the local union to stop the San Dieguito Union High School District from reopening. Stratton told Just the News the parents funded the litigation themselves.

Last week, Stratton posted the emails, which show CTA discussions with parents allied with the San Dieguito Faculty Association (SDFA), in a private Facebook group for SDUHSD parents. 

"I'm actually a liberal — I just want schools open," she said in a phone interview. Stratton has been sitting on the emails for a year because "I didn't know if anyone would be really interested."

She released them now because opponents obtained and photoshopped screenshots from the private Facebook group to make SDUHSD Trustee Mike Allman look transphobic, Stratton said.

Allman, who previously survived an SDFA-initiated recall, told The Coast News he respects preferred pronouns. The audience at an Aug. 25 board meeting shouted down Allman when he tried to respond to their accusations, The Del Mar Times reported.

An archive of Swinburn's tweets from October 2021 suggest the CTA research specialist saw school reopening activism as "an effort orchestrated by seasoned right-wing political operatives" rather than "an organic grassroots movement of angry parents."

She contacted two SDFA-allied parents April 14, 2021, because she heard they had "lots of information regarding the Parent Association." One of them, lawyer Michele Macosky, looped in other parents who had been "monitoring and helping collect this information."

One of the new parents, Holly Butte, accidentally added then-San Dieguito Academy Principal Adam Camacho to the thread, prompting Macosky to ask if they needed to do "damage control." Butte said it wouldn't be a problem "unless someone does a record request for his work email."

Macosky asked Butte if she knew Camacho well enough to "ask him to delete and disregard," worrying that the principal would read the full email thread. "He's so busy I am sure he will be happy to delete," Butte responded. 

Stratton told Just the News that Macosky should face an ethics investigation from the State Bar of California for suggesting they ask the principal to violate the PRA. 

Macosky didn't respond to Just the News when asked about Stratton's allegation. Butte didn't answer whether anyone actually asked Camacho to delete the message and whether she understood the request as asking him to violate the PRA.

Neither CTA nor SDFA responded to queries.