How an Orange County School Official Ended Up In the Shrubs Outside His Opponent’s Home

William Howard Taft. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

On April 5, Mari Barke’s morning routine was interrupted when a neighbor called to report “a very creepy guy” in a BMW had been parked outside Barke’s Los Alamitos home. When Barke looked, the car was gone. The next morning, Barke’s husband, Jeff, went out to retrieve his newspaper. There, he says, he encountered a man with “comb-over dark hair” waving a package. “I am serving your wife,” the man said. Jeff Barke responded with what seems linguistically/existentially/physiologically obvious: “You’re doing nothing of the sort.” The man dropped the package on the driveway and fled.

The arboreal letter-carrier was David L. Boyd, incumbent county school trustee from District 2, and therefore one of Orange County’s most powerful elected officials. Mari Barke is his opponent in the June 5 election.

How that man—arbiter of issues affecting half a million Orange County students—ended up in the shrubbery outside a political opponent’s home is just a piece of the weirdness surrounding Boyd.

Boyd also owns Taft Law School, a for-profit online business that brings in millions of dollars in federal loans from students who rarely graduate nor pass the state bar exam. State regulators have not only questioned Taft’s poor student performance, but also raised the possibility the school retroactively boosted grades to help students qualify for federal loans. Taft was never sanctioned.

When Mari Barke announced she would run for Boyd’s seat, it was his online law school that Boyd seemed most eager to defend. In a prickly Jan. 31 email to her, Boyd expressed his “hope you chose [sic] to run a clean campaign.”

Then came the hammer: “However, it’s only fair to warn you that if you, directly or indirectly, attack members of my family, my employer or its employees, you can expect that we will respond in kind. As a start, this could mean protesters/picketers at your [husband’s] place of business in Newport Beach.”

Strangely for a guy warning Mari Barke to steer clear of his law school, Boyd signed off with two honorifics: “Chancellor, The Taft University System” and “Trustee, Orange County Board of Education.”

Then Boyd went deeper into the figurative bushes. He cc’d that email to Denis Bilodeau, chief of staff to county Supervisor Shawn Nelson. Bilodeau replied:

I have no idea why you sent the email below to me. You and I have never spoken, exchanged emails, nor met, and I condemn what you are suggesting in the strongest terms possible. Threatening your opponent, Mrs. Barke, is unethical. Threatening to disrupt the medical practice of her husband, Dr. Barke, is beyond despicable. You are obviously a bully, and I have no intention of allowing anyone who sees this email to think I am somehow involved in whatever it is you have planned.

When longtime Southern California reporter Tori Richards called Boyd for her story about grade-changing at Taft, Boyd threatened her, too. “This is to put you on notice that you may, knowingly or unknowingly, be a party to an extortion attempt,” Boyd wrote in an email.

It’s easy to understand why Boyd insists opponents ignore controversy at his law school. What’s less clear is why he impulsively involves that very law school in his threats. For example, when his early attempts to derail Barke’s campaign failed, Boyd turned to the courts—and once again involved his law school.

In his March 19 lawsuit seeking to deny Barke’s ballot designation as “ESL teacher,” two of Boyd’s Taft employees served as surrogates. Christine Baldwin, director of admissions at Taft, was listed as plaintiff. Taft’s dean, Robert Strouse, was listed as attorney of record.

But Strouse and Boyd made numerous mistakes, including inexplicably waiting until just a few days before the legal deadline to notify anyone that the suit had been filed. Deadline pressure drove Boyd into the Barkes’ bushes on April 5. But when Boyd dropped his notice in their driveway, a judge said, he had not served Mari Barke. The judge dismissed Boyd’s complaint.

Beneath Boyd’s fecklessness is a very real struggle. Maintaining the county school board title is likely helpful to his business. The halo of public service can only help a man being questioned about shortcomings at his for-profit school.

But there’s a deeper issue: the future of public education. Barke says she decided to run for Boyd’s seat after seeing him vote against multiple charter schools applying to serve in poor communities where huge majorities of students fail to read or perform math at grade level.

Attorney Tim Adams, a member of the Orange County Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools, said endorsing Barke was easy: “Education leaders in Orange County voted overwhelmingly against endorsing David Boyd because of his abysmal record on charter schools.”

The battle for the school board seat has even produced its own #MeToo moment.

“How incredibly sexist, in 2018, that [Boyd] tries to bully Mari Barke by threatening to go after her husband—as if she is simply an extension of her husband instead of an activist and a business person in her own right,” said Carolyn Ben, president of the conservative Lincoln Club’s Women’s Leadership Committee. “It’s creepy and Neanderthal.”

Creepy? Neanderthal? The native habitat of such a creature is almost certainly the well-watered shrubs of North Orange County.

Will Swaim was founding editor of OC Weekly.

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