KNIGHTSEN -- Teachers in the tiny school district here are on the stump now that their union has endorsed several school board candidates for the first time.
The 26-member Knightsen Teachers Association is encouraging voters to elect Thomas Baldocchi Jr., Michael Matienzo and Janice Smith from the pool of five who are running for three seats on the board.
Incumbent Franklin Dell and challenger Adam McMeans are also vying to serve one of those four-year terms.
Until now, teachers haven't been involved in the political process, said Jamie Bennetts, chairwoman of the union's political action committee.
A few of them last summer broached the idea of changing that, however, knowing that, for the first time in years, the 2012 race would be contested: Two of the three board members whose terms are expiring are stepping down next month.
Teachers are hoping to get individuals elected who will do something about how the district is managing its money; over the last year a number of them have become increasingly concerned over what they consider to be the administration's overly conservative spending practices given the size of its reserves.
The district has maintained that it must set aside a sizable amount if it is to continue making payments on a $3.3 million loan for Old River Elementary School.
Nevertheless, the KTA contends the Knightsen School District is undermining the quality of education students are receiving with the cuts it has made.
Teachers think current board members aren't asking administrators enough pointed questions about the budget, Bennetts said, noting that she and her colleagues believe there are things the district could do to improve classroom conditions even when money is tight.
Superintendent Theresa Estrada said she was "neutral" when asked what she thought about the teachers' endorsements.
The teachers union voted last fall to form a political action committee, and this summer it began looking for fresh faces it could support.
The board "pretty much has entrusted the administration to make the right recommendations, and there rarely (has been) any serious questioning of any proposals that were brought forth," Bennetts said.
KTA was particularly eager to find parents who were open to running, those who didn't have a preconceived notion of how the school should be run and were involved in campus activities, Bennetts said.
Teachers want a school board that regularly visits classrooms to see how its decisions affect students, said Melissa Cakebread, an 18-year veteran of the district who hasn't had any trustee stop by her classroom in recent years.
"I'd like to see that again," she said.
Once the union had narrowed the field to three, it sent those individuals as well as the incumbents up for re-election a list of nine questions -- one of which asked how likely they were to critically evaluate administration's recommendations to the board -- and in June invited each to an interview.
None of the incumbents responded to the mailing, Bennetts said.
Dell said he didn't respond to the invitation to be interviewed because he didn't believe the teachers had an open mind.
"I was afraid that whatever I said they'd use against me," Dell said.
He expressed a mixture of resignation and frustration when he learned that the union is backing three other candidates.
"I expected that. They decided to load up the school board with their people, and they'll be able to get whatever they want," he said, noting that if all three are elected they'll represent a majority vote on the five-member board.
He added that he votes according to what he believes is best for students, which doesn't always align with teachers' wishes.
In voting on the endorsements, Bennetts said teachers included Janice Smith because, although she no longer has a child in the district, she remembers the quality of education her son received at Knightsen School.
"She knows what the school should look like," Bennetts said. "She knows what she loved about the school."
Bennetts also noted that the KTA already had made its endorsements when challenger Adam McMeans filed nomination papers, unaware that he was interested in running.
"We were not leaving him out. For all we know he might have ended up being one of our endorsed candidates," she said.
With just $1,250 at its disposal to get out the vote, KTA is operating a shoestring campaign.
The union will be reaching out to the school district's 1,067 registered voters later this month with two mailers as well as distributing small cards promoting its endorsements.
Teachers in small districts don't usually get involved in politicking, said California Teachers Association's Rick Wathen, who oversees well over 200 school districts in a 17-county area from Monterey to Oregon as a political organizer.
But when they do, many in those tightly knit communities hear about it, he said.
And when teachers talk about school board races, CTA polls have shown that a significant majority of voters "definitely pay attention," Wathen said. "The teacher's the most credible messenger."
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.