Eric Swanson has been here before.

In 2001, he was elected to the Hesperia Unified School District school board, where he served for five years. (Board members' terms in office were changed during his tenure to make school board elections line up with city council and park board elections.) But in 2006, he came in fourth in a race where only the top three vote getters -- Hardy Black, Robert Kirk and Lee Rogers -- won seats.

"I just don't take things personally," Swanson said. "There's no question that it [was] disappointing, because there's things you want to do or see continue."

Most politicians are done, once turned out of office, and vanish from the political scene. But Swanson wants back in.

He decided to make the jump "when I started to see how the budget crisis" was being handled, he said. California's budget deficit meant likely cuts in school district budgets, and districts across the state were told this spring to expect major cuts, with the HUSD estimating a $5.5 million shortfall locally.

"I was being pushed hard by a lot of people," Swanson said. "Every time I turned around, people were saying 'you are going to run, aren't you?'"

But if Swanson wins, he'll be stepping onto a board where the three winners in 2006 are calling the shots through at least the 2010 election.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is that we can put the district back to normal in two years," Swanson said.

He said the current board has overstepped its mandate and proper role.

"The board does not run the district," he said. "It provides oversight."

Former board member Bruce Minton, who stepped down earlier this year for health reasons, has accused Black, Kirk and Rogers of directly giving orders to district employees, instead of going through Superintendent Mark McKinney.

Swanson also said the board isn't reacting the way it needs to, faced with the current budget crisis and accompanying declining enrollment.

"They're still building schools," he said, noting that nearly all of them are projects started when he was on the board. "They're talking about building a planetarium."

But the board should hold off on more building until declining enrollment turns around and should be planning for future growth, Swanson said.

"They need to be buying land. It's tough to find 20 to 30 acres to build on," he said. "Building comes in waves and we should be ready when it comes again and be ready to build again."

He also criticized the board's changes to previous initiatives, such as the two sixth grade only schools, which were originally created as a measure to deal with overcrowding but which ended up being praised by secondary school teachers for better preparing students for the transition from elementary school.

"That's a tough year, a transitional year," Swanson said. "We have to figure out how to have the elementary schools help out the secondary schools and not the other way around."

He also criticized the board's decision to pursue "schools of choice," theme-based elementary schools, starting with the Cypress Academy of the Arts. Cypress, a former sixth grade only school, now theoretically has a stronger focus on music than other HUSD elementary schools.

"When you start putting choice school or theme school names on an elementary school, it's just smoke and mirrors education," Swanson said.

The Victor Elementary School District, the example most often cited by the sitting board members, is moving away from schools of choice, according to Swanson.

"They're going back to an equal format on their schools. You have to give kids and equal education," he said. "All our schools should have music exposure. All our schools should have a full range of science. All our schools should have mathematics."

Swanson has spoken out at school board meetings this summer, criticizing the board's changes to existing bussing policies for secondary students. Although the board eventually rolled back the new boundaries passed this summer, the district's new bus passes, and the enforcement of previously unenforced older boundaries has meant more students walking to school than in previous years, which Swanson has said compromises their safety.

"I still can't imagine kids walking in the dark, or walking any of our streets that don't have sidewalks."

The tumultuous past two years have also put the HUSD further away from its goal of all schools getting an average 800 Academic Performance Index score on state testing by 2010, he said.

"We should be further than we are," Swanson said. "We have to find a way to start moving again, or we'll never make the numbers."

California Charter Academy, ExCEL Institute

Being a former board member means that Swanson has a better-known history than the other five candidates in this year's race, including a mention in the 2005 audit of the California Charter Academy. Once California's largest charter school operator, CCA shut its doors in August 2004.

In the audit, Swanson's company, Community Information Services Online, was allegedly paid more than $708,000 by the California Charter Academy "without a description of the goods or services to be provided," according to the audit, the same day Swanson had resigned from their governing boards. Swanson disputes the audit's version of events, saying his company never received any purchase order, and did not hear about the board's decision until later.

"They asked for quotes on prices and I gave them," Swanson said. "In fact, they made more purchased from other people. ... They don't have the invoices for those other people, either."

The audit "did not say we did anything wrong."

School board candidate Chris Bentley has attacked Swanson in newspaper ads for his role in the ExCEL Foundation, a theoretically independent body that oversaw HUSD teachers training other districts in ways to better teach students using ability-based additional tutoring. The ExCEL program and foundation have been the target of repeated criticism by Bentley and the current controlling school board majority.

"It's sad because [ExCEL] did work," Swanson said. "The ExCEL Foundation did exactly what it was supposed to do: It brought money back to the district for teaching other districts. It brought money home to the classrooms."

Swanson's wife, Rebekah Swanson, a teacher in the HUSD, received payments for ExCEL training.

"I never hired her," Swanson said. "We had no control over who [trainer] as a board."

The board's attacks on ExCEL and other legacies of previous boards and superintendents have been a distraction away from their mission, he said.

"I don't see the leadership we had before, and I want to go back to it," he said. "We need to get back on that road to greatness. ... We really do."

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.