Ty Humes knew he was stepping into the still-raging school reopening battle when he decided in late April to apply for an open trustee position on the local school board where he lives in North County San Diego.

But the 14-year district resident, a successful businessman, biotech entrepreneur, community volunteer and father of two, didn’t realize he would be placing a union target on his back by taking on the mostly volunteer position. It boasts a meager $400-a-month stipend.

Three weeks ago, Humes was unanimously appointed to the vacant trustee seat on the San Dieguito Union High School District board after public interviews with seven highly qualified candidates. The student representatives who participated also voted for him.

After interviewing all of the candidates, the board narrowed the field to their top three. Humes, who had served as president of a local Del Mar school foundation for six years, was the only candidate in all four voting trustees’ lists of top three finalists, so the board moved to wrap up the process and formally appoint him.

In addition to his long list of business credentials, Humes is African American and has two biracial children attending local schools, providing a rare instance of diversity on the historically all-white school board.

One involved parent called Humes a dream “unicorn candidate” who far exceeded most parents’ expectations for filling the vacant slot.

Despite his impressive credentials, local teacher union representatives began circulating a petition immediately after Humes’ selection to hold a special election to try to oust him.

At a towering 6-7, Humes is used to standing out in a crowd in his mainly Caucasian and Asian neighborhood where he serves on the Del Mar Little League board and as a youth basketball coach. But he’s been surprised by how quickly the teacher union has targeted and mobilized against him. In less than three weeks, the San Dieguito Faculty Association, the local teachers and professional staff union, collected the required 400 signatures to hold a special election; they are moving forward with it even though it would leave the area Humes represents without a voting trustee (the appointment is terminated once the 400 signatures are certified) until a special election is held, which local authorities estimate could cost the school district $500,000. The school district is already in the red and using money from its general reserves to try to balance its budget.

“I’m someone who has no allegiance – only to the students and their families – and [the union] is bringing people down from all over the state to go door to door to collect signatures against me,” Humes told RealClearPolitics.

Amid the Black Lives Matter movement over the last year, several Southern California communities have created equity awareness campaigns. In early May, Encinitas, a city in the school district, created a new social equity committee and tapped Marlon Taylor, president of the nonprofit Encinitas4Equality and the first black trustee of the Encinitas Union School District, as one of its eight members.

Humes’ supporters say it’s outrageous that the city of Encinitas is celebrating a like-minded community volunteer while next door the teachers’ union is trying to remove the only other African American school board trustee in the area because the union wasn’t involved in his selection and he could challenge their positions.

“The irony is thick and deep,” said Ginny Merrifield, executive director of the Parents Association of North County, which has pushed for expanded school reopening amid COVID pandemic closures. “The real motivation is to control the district policy, the upcoming June contract negotiations and the school reopening process. We should be focused on the students, but this was never really about the students and that’s what’s sad about it.”

Humes, a Bronx native whose father was a Teamster and whose mother was a public school teacher, says he’s not a member of either political party and considers himself an independent. But that type of free-thinking is not what the unions want and expect from the school board, he argues.

Parent-Paradigm Shift

The driving force behind the special election to remove him, Humes says, is the paradigm shift taking place across California and the country during the COVID lockdowns when parent groups started pushing back against union resistance to in-classroom learning.

“The parents were not involved in this discussion at all,” Humes says. “There should have been community forums where parents and teachers were allowed to debate the issue to the fullest. Instead, it was completely the opposite – with stealth-room deals between the unions and the school districts.”

Humes has two children taking different approaches to returning to the classroom this spring. His ninth-grade daughter has a social outlet on a dance team so she prefers to remain in remote learning, while his fifth-grade son has eagerly returned to school.

“I'm not in either camp on the issue,” he said. “My opinion is based on what we need to do for our infrastructure and what is best for the individual students and the parents.”

It’s no coincidence that the union is homing in on this particular school district. The affluent seaside communities of North County San Diego, home to some of the state’s best schools, have been at the vanguard of the reopening push since late last year.

Frustrated by the union resistance to expanding in-classroom learning for high school students, parents in the area formed the Parents Association of North County to achieve that goal.

Throughout the fall of 2020, as parents pushed for reopening schools, the union threw up roadblock after roadblock. In late October, the superintendent and union ignored a school board vote requiring teachers to provide remote instruction from their classrooms to prepare for the reopening process.

In December, the local union, the San Dieguito Faculty Association, or SDFA, with legal assistance from the CTA, issued a cease-and-desist order blocking the district from reopening after winter break as planned.

In February, the district applied to the state for a waiver to return to in-person learning, but the SDFA and its allies organized an email campaign to block it even though it had already been approved by the San Diego health authorities.

Frustrated by the union resistance, late last year parents in several local school districts in the area combined forces to form the Parent Association of North County to push for expanded reopening. Earlier this year, the association sued the state to overturn pandemic-related rules limiting the number of days of in-person learning, or completely blocking some schools for reopening at all.

Amid the legal wrangling, some of the parents in the case expressed deep concerns that their children have either attempted suicide or expressed suicidal thoughts after learning their schools were continuing solely with distance learning. There were at least three suicides of students at high schools in the school district that occurred during the pandemic lockdowns, although it’s difficult to know all the relevant factors that contributed. Parents in the case cited a spike in teen mental health cases nationwide, arguing that their children were suffering both socially and in their educational pursuits amid the isolation and loneliness brought on by school closures and lackluster remote learning options.

Judge rules in Parents’ Favor

In mid-March, San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland ruled in the association’s favor, prohibiting the state from enforcing its restrictions that she agreed were “arbitrary,” interfered with local school districts’ reopening plans for in-person instruction and denied children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality.”

The judge’s decision applied to the entire state, sending a clear message to the California Teachers Association, the biggest statewide teacher union, and the Gavin Newsom administration that their guidelines weren’t mandates and they must allow school districts to reopen more rapidly.

That move and others have rankled the North County union, which has a history of working with the district’s trustees to approve union positions, set teacher and superintendent salaries, and control the district’s finances.

Months earlier, the makeup of the San Dieguito Union High School District began shifting with the election of Michael Allman, who joined Maureen “Mo” Muir, the president of the board of trustees, in backing the parents’ push to expand in-classroom learning and school reopenings.

In recent weeks, both the superintendent and the Area 5 trustee – who held the position Humes was appointed to – resigned, and the unions have vocally opposed both replacements.

‘Nothing to Do With Race’

Duncan Brown, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association, the local union, said he’s concerned about how the process has played out in both Lucile Lynch’s appointment as interim superintendent of the district, as well as Humes’ selection.

“For me, this has nothing to do with race, it has to do with the process,” Brown told RCP about his opposition to Humes’ appointment, noting that he had called for a special election even before Humes was selected. “The public only had five days to review the applications – only five days – and that wasn’t enough time to get all the information that was presented.”

Brown and the SDFA officials aggressively resisted the push to reopen schools, even filing a cease-and-desist order against the district’s reopening plans this past Christmas Eve.

But now that most teachers are vaccinated, Brown said, he and other union officials are now “embracing people coming back.”

“We’re moving on doing what we need to do to best educate students,” he said.

Brown says he and other local union leaders are pursuing a special election to ensure that Area 5 voters have a say in who represents them because the other four trustees who appointed Humes represent nearby areas, not Area-5 voters.

“I don’t feel that it’s in the Area 5 residents’ best interest if they don’t have an opportunity to vote for their trustee,” he explained. “In years past, school board members were elected from the entire district and then that would make a little bit more sense as far as somebody being appointed.”

Instead of holding a costly special election, Humes was appointed to the seat after a trustee resigned. That trustee term ends in November 2022, and a short-term vacancy is commonly filled by special appointment. According to the San Diego County Board of Education, over the last decade, out of 92 district school board vacancies, in only four of them was a special election held instead of filling the vacancy by appointment. Of those four special elections, only one of them was not lumped into an upcoming primary or general election to lower the costs.

Brown says he expects the same thing to happen with the Area 5 trustee seat – that it will be added to the recall Newsom election in the fall, likely cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the estimated election price tag.

Whether a special election costs the district $500,000 or less than $200,000 is of little solace to Humes and his supporters.

“We know they really want the union-backed candidate to win – and they knew that it would be unlikely that this board was going to appoint a union candidate they want,” Allman said. “This district is big enough – it’s becoming a quarter-million people, 13,000-plus students – that the CTA sees it as a bellwether for how the state goes.”

Merrifield, of the Parents Association of North County, agrees.

“This district in particular is a canary in the mine for everybody,” she said. “What happens here is an example of what happens in other places around the state. We’re small but we’re definitely on the radar.”

Parent Trust ‘Betrayed’

Merrifield, who is opening new chapters of the association across the state, said her organization is incredibly supportive of most teachers, whom she credits for working hard to adapt to remote learning techniques throughout the pandemic. But she argues the online learning and social isolation has been incredibly harmful to the social and emotional well-being of students. Parents felt like they had no control and were locked out of the discussion and the process.

“The unions had all the controls and the parents had none,” she said. “That trust that existed was betrayed. Families, especially families of color, were disproportionately impacted by the learning loss and the loss of access to special [in-person] programs. So the harm was significant.”

The unions have already collected the 400 signatures to prompt a special election, so now Humes must campaign for the trustee seat he was just appointed to hold. The union has yet to announce its preferred candidate, but Humes’ supporters expect a deluge of union money and resources into the district to sway the outcome.

“You know, I’m honestly shocked by what’s going on,” said Muir, the president of the SDUHSD school board. “Ty’s an excellent appointment, who has all the necessary skill sets to be an exceptional board member, and I don’t think [the union] realizes that having an outstanding independent board member is in everyone’s interest and success, especially for our students.”

Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a short-term vacancy and overriding a board’s unanimous appointment to gain more union control is a disappointing, unproductive decision that creates unnecessary conflict, she argued.

Muir fears the teacher union’s opposition to Humes stems from his and the board’s support for a safe reopening of schools. While Muir has supported the efforts to accommodate the union’s safety concerns, she also believes that reopening is vital to prevent students from experiencing ongoing negative educational and social impacts.

“A quick, safe reopening of the schools is a matter of principle for me. If I can accommodate union concerns without compromising this principle, I stand ready to do so,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like compromise is in the [union] vocabulary at this point.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.