The Culture Wars Came to a California Suburb. A Leader Has Been Ousted.

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From the start, the three conservative board members of the Temecula Valley Unified School District made clear where they stood. On the same night in December 2022 that they were sworn in as a majority, they passed a resolution banning critical race theory from classrooms in their Southern California district.

Months later, they abruptly fired the superintendent, saying they believed the district needed someone with new ideas. After that, they passed a rule requiring that parents be notified whenever a student requests to be identified as a different gender at school.

The moves were applauded by conservatives, many of them Christian churchgoers who had helped to install the new board members, hoping that Temecula Valley could remain an island of traditional values in a liberal state.

But this once rural area, about 60 miles northeast of San Diego, had transformed in recent decades into a diverse bedroom community, and many other families grew frustrated by what they considered to be the unwelcome incursion of national culture wars into their prized public schools.

That backlash came to a head this month when voters recalled Joseph Komrosky, a military veteran and community college professor who had been the school board president since that December night. Mr. Komrosky’s ouster was made official on Thursday evening.

“People are moving here so they can put their kids in the school district,” said Jeff Pack, whose One Temecula Valley PAC led the recall effort. “They don’t want all this partisan political warfare, this culture war stuff getting in the way.”

Across California, conservative board members elected as part of the same wave that swept Mr. Komrosky and his colleagues into office are facing similar recall efforts.

In March, two conservative board members in Orange County were recalled for supporting policies similar to the ones enacted by the Temecula Valley board. The same month, a trustee backed by a Moms for Liberty group in a district outside Sacramento was ousted after she called transgender identity “a social contagion.” Next month, voters in a tiny district in the Bay Area will decide whether to remove two conservative board members.

There were no school board recalls on a ballot in California last year, according to Joshua Spivak, a senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law who closely tracks recalls nationwide. The similarly themed recalls against conservatives in California this year are unusual, he said, because in the past, most ouster attempts were driven by a specific local conflict.

“This is a hot-button issue that voters are very engaged on,” he said.

Temecula, like many communities in inland California, has grown in recent decades by attracting an array of families priced out of cities closer to the coast. (In 1990, Temecula’s population was 27,099, according to census data. In 2023, it was about 110,700.)

The city is within commute distance to northern San Diego County, where there are large military installations and tech companies, as well as southern Orange County and Riverside. Separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Santa Ana Mountains, Temecula is a particular destination for young parents seeking bigger homes than they can get in the pricier coastal suburbs — without sacrificing access to top-tier public schools.

But the politics there are far from settled. The recall barely passed, with 51 percent voting to recall Mr. Komrosky and 49 percent against. Only 212 votes out of 9,714 separated the two sides.

It was close enough that Mr. Komrosky said that he would most likely run for the seat again in November.

“My commitment to protecting the innocence of our children in Temecula schools remains unwavering,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Komrosky and two conservative colleagues were elected to the Temecula Valley Unified board in November 2022 amid a wave of efforts by like-minded groups to elect school board members across California. Many conservatives believed their resources were better spent trying to influence local schools to join a national “parental rights” movement than trying to elect legislators or statewide leaders in Democratic-dominated California.

Of the three Temecula Valley Unified board members elected in 2022, only Jennifer Wiersma, who describes herself as a faith-motivated “advocate for parental rights,” remains; the other conservative board member, Danny Gonzalez, stepped down in December to move to Texas. His seat is vacant.

Supporters of Mr. Komrosky and the board’s majority blamed the state’s political establishment and labor unions for his ouster. They said that conservatives on school boards who had tried to limit the teaching of L.G.B.T.Q. history and add notification requirements for children’s gender identification had done so to protect the rights of parents.

The conservative bloc at Temecula Valley angered Democratic state leaders last year when they refused to approve a social studies curriculum that mentioned Harvey Milk, the slain gay rights pioneer — whom Mr. Komrosky had called a “pedophile.” They later changed course after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine the district $1.5 million.

“It’s saddening and frightening that good people are targeted for standing up for parent involvement and common sense for the betterment of our children’s education,” said Sonja Shaw, an outspoken conservative activist who leads the Chino Valley Unified School District board, not far from Temecula. The Chino Valley district is currently embroiled in a legal fight against the state to defend its parental notification policy.

Leaders of the campaign to recall Mr. Komrosky said that parents in Temecula — and across California — had long taken for granted that school boards generally focus on the mundane work of maintaining school buildings, recruiting strong teachers and making sure after-school programs run smoothly. Now, many said the actions of the new board had snapped them back to attention.

Mr. Pack said he started the One Temecula Valley PAC in 2022 to recruit candidates for nonpartisan local offices, including the Temecula City Council, where he felt recently elected officials were using their positions to make national political statements rather than focus on local government affairs. He cited one Temecula City Council member who tried to make the city a “sanctuary” for the unborn, even though abortion is legal in California and cities can’t ban the procedure.

He said he quickly found that ousting school board members was a top priority for many parents, who felt that the group, under Mr. Komrosky’s leadership, had racked up unnecessary legal bills and strayed from the mission of educating students.

In one recent case, the district agreed to pay $75,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by two residents whom Mr. Komrosky had removed from school board meetings because he said they were disruptive. The residents claimed that he had violated their free speech rights; lawyers for one of them, Upneet Dhaliwal, said in a complaint that Mr. Komrosky asserted that her questioning of the superintendent hiring process was off topic.

Ms. Dhaliwal, 42, moved in 2022 from San Diego to Temecula with her husband and daughter, who will be an eighth grader in the district. When they were looking for a new community, Temecula fit the bill on their two main requirements: good schools and affordable housing.

Ms. Dhaliwal said she had never so much as called her daughter’s teacher in San Diego, where “usually an email would solve any issue.” But after seeing Temecula in the news for defying the state’s social studies curriculum, she decided to attend the meeting in which the board fired the superintendent. She grew alarmed.

“I came back home,” she said, “and recall seemed like the only option.”



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