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Veteran School Board Member Hangs Up His Gloves

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Aired 12/6/10

A man who's become synonymous with San Diego school board politics is officially hanging up his gloves today. John de Beck has served on San Diego's school board for 20 years. He's worked with six different superintendents as a trustee. He's being replaced by Scott Barnett, who defeated de Beck in the November election.

A man who has become synonymous with San Diego school board politics is officially hanging up his gloves today. John de Beck has served on San Diego's school board for 20 years. He's worked with diffsixerent superintendents as a trustee. He's being replaced by Scott Barnett, who defeated de Beck in the November election. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis visited with de Beck at his home in Linda Vista.

John de Beck has served on the San Diego Unified School Board for 20 years.

Above: John de Beck has served on the San Diego Unified School Board for 20 years.

John de Beck is known for his white hair, thick glasses and nonsense way of talking. He calls himself a "creative thinker" and an "idea man." In fact, he designed and built his own eco-friendly home 20 years ago -- before solar panels were considered cool.

Twenty four kilowatts of electricity every day. See, if you look. this roof is small and that roof is big, and the reason why it's big is because it has the panels on it. And most of the things I do have a reason.

One of de Beck's most successful ideas was running for the San Diego City school board in 1990. He says he ran because he was tired of teachers not having a say in the direction of education.

De Beck was a teacher for more than 30 years. He was the teachers union "go-to" man on the board. Ironically, two decades later, he became the union's enemy.

The veteran trustee says he fell out of favor with the union because he began proposing salary cuts, layoffs and furlough days to save precious programs. He says he wasn't picking on the teachers union. He was hoping to equally spread the pain within the district.

That hurt. I lost the election because of my ideas. To me it's a tragedy when the people and institution I really believe in, like the teachers, reject an idea before they even get the chance to explore alternatives that the idea might offer.

De Beck hopes he'll be remembered for his creative thinking and problem solving. But critics say he wasted a lot of school board time with his ideas.

Amone de Beck's suggestions was splitting the school district into smaller factions to better manage budgets and reforms.

He also said the district didn't need a savior superintendent. Instead, San Diego Unified should have several school leaders working together to guide the district.

De Beck says that would allow for compromise and collaboration...two things he contends have been missing in San Diego Unified for the past decade. He says of all the superintendents that have come and gone, it was Tom Payzant whom he feels served the dsitrict well.

I believe Payzant was the best superintendent we've had in my lifetime. And he was top down, but he was a compromising top-down person. He was not the kind of person who was 'it is my way or the highway.' with him there were counterpoints of discussions of things to do.

De Beck was an outspoken opponent of all six superintendents he worked with on the school board. His biggest enemy was Alan Bersin, a superintendent who was notorious for his heavy-handed approach to reforms. De Beck also criticized the management of Carl Cohn, a nationally recognized leader who was known for his quiet-style of leadership.

"I was very disappointed with Carl, and he was disappointed with me. But the thing with Carl was he was also not a compromiser. He had a reputation of being a compromiser but he really wasn't. He's in the school of, 'I'm a professional I know better hire us experts and then get out of the way.'"

De Beck is writing a book about his time on the school board and the problem it had keeping superintendents. He calls it "The Battle On Normal Street." That's the street where the district is headquartered. De Beck says the problem with public education today is that it's filled with selfish people.

"You have the teachers striving for control, business interests striving for control, now the tide is turning and unions are in charge, but the community never got control themselves," says de Beck. "The parents fall for one side or the other. It's still the same battle, different players and different kinds of rallying cries.

But de Beck's rallying cry will now have to take place in the school board audience and not on the dais. He says he won't stop dreaming up big ideas.

"I can like it from the outside and yell at them and be the person saying 'you're making mistakes.' I'll probably do that for a long time. And maybe I'll even get to say, I told you so."

But for now, de Beck says he's happy to look to a brighter future with less stress. He plans to spend time with his wife of 38 years, Maxine, and his two dogs -- Abbey and Leo. "Yeah and they seem to like me, which is even better. We all live for love, and that's pretty much what they give."

De Beck's replacement, tax advocate Scott Barnett, is officially sworn-in today during a special ceremony at the San Diego Board of Education.

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