Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Governance Structure Of City Schools Questioned


What's the motivation behind San Diegans 4 Great Schools? We speak to one of the organizers of the coalition about why they think the city should reexamine the way the San Diego Unified School District is run.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. As San Diego Unified School District embarks on a new management style from the grass roots up, one group claims the problems with the district can be found at the top. Calling the district a failing system, the group called San Diegans 4 Great Schools points to the school board structure as part of the reason test scores are lagging for many of the district's students. I’d like to welcome my guest. Scott Himelstein is director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at USD, and one of the organizers of San Diegans 4 Great Schools. And, Scott, welcome. Thanks for coming in.

SCOTT HIMELSTEIN (Organizer, San Diegans 4 Great Schools): Good morning, Maureen. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: What was San Diegans 4 Great Schools, why were they established?

HIMELSTEIN: Well, I think once we took a look at the results of the study, we saw a sustained long period of time of troubling results for the district. And no matter whether you look at national or state tests, the truth of the matter is half of our kids in elementary and middle school are not reading or computing math at grade level. And I want to be clear here. This is not about one school board member or a school board in particular. This is a sustained period of time where we have had kind of wild swings amongst our school boards, shifts in power. We’ve had four superintendents in the last five years and with each of those superintendents comes a different set of educational priorities, different curriculum, different management, personnel. So we submit from a governance point of view, a leadership point of view, we’ve made it very difficult for our teachers and principals and other administrators to be successful. It’s hard to gain expertise when you’re shifting priorities and curriculum every 12 to 18 months.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let me ask you about the study that you referenced. Who commissioned this study?

HIMELSTEIN: Umm-hmm. The study was commissioned by a private philanthropist here in San Diego County, a man named Rod Dammeyer, who actually came to us over a year ago and said at this point in my life, I’m interested in seeing what I can do to help the schools but I would like some baseline data. How are we doing here in San Diego? And once I have that, I’d like to approach the district and say here we are, how can I help?

CAVANAUGH: And what were some of the findings of this study? What did it look at? Did it look at test scores? Did it look at people remaining – students remaining in school and graduating? What were the areas that the study checked out?

HIMELSTEIN: So the study was broken down into really three areas: student achievement, finance and kind of a qualitative review, asking people what’s needed in our district. And this was people closely associated with the district. In terms of achievement, I’ve already talked a little bit about it in that half of our students are not computing math or reading at grade level no matter which test you look at. But the truly troubling part of it is that in San Diego, almost two-thirds of our student (sic) are categorized as low income English language learners or students with disabilities. And if you fall into that category, which two-thirds do, you’re doing much, much worse. As a matter of fact, about 80% of those students are not reading or computing math at grade level. And, again, this is over a sustained period of time, about a seven-year period or so. On the finance side, we found that during that same period that even though enrollment in the district declined or average daily attendance declined about 11% or so, dollars received and spent per student over that time period actually rose about fifteen and a half percent when you adjusted for inflation. In total, it was about 33%. So we have declining enrollment, we have rising number of dollars spent, and we have scores that can be categorized as troubling at best.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Scott Himelstein. He’s director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at USD. And he’s one of the organizers of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, came out with a study called “The Failing System.” So that was the overall takeaway from the study, that the San Diego Unified School District is failing?

HIMELSTEIN: Well, I don’t know that that was the overall takeaway but, again, when you have half the students performing so poorly, I don’t know how else you say it other than it’s failing. It certainly has a lot of room for improvement in a number of different areas. It’s not that people aren’t trying hard, but there’s significant room for improvement.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m interested in one of the things that you’ve been saying about the increased funding for students in San Diego Unified. This district has had to cut millions and millions of dollars from its budget over the past couple of years and it faces more budget shortfalls as Sacramento sort of tightens the reins on school spending because of its budget problems.


CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering where you found the fact that the actual funding per student has actually increased? How far back have you gone, in other words?

HIMELSTEIN: Right, so this study went from the 2002-2003 school year up through the 2009 school year, so about a year old or so. So every year, I believe, with the exception of one, the dollars per student increased for an overall total of a little over 15% or so. Yes, it is true within the past year there have been reductions in the state budget but all of this data is from publicly available sources, the California Department of Education, San Diego Unified School District and the unified – the U.S. Department of Education. So these are accurate numbers. The data are the data. So through this time period, which is the last publicly available data available, it is accurate.

CAVANAUGH: Now how does the results of this study indicate that there’s a problem with the governance of the school district?

HIMELSTEIN: Well, the study itself doesn’t make any recommendations whatsoever. It is a ‘just the facts’ type of study. It was a status report. A group of citizens got together upon seeing this study and really spent about the last 8 or 9 months or so talking about what can we do about this? It’s not acceptable. How can we help? And it seemed to us after a number of meetings, a number of months, that the one constant over this time was the problem with governance. Again, as I talked about before, the wild shifts in leadership, having four superintendents in five years. There is no consistent, long term vision, nor a strategic plan for improvement of student achievement. It’s impossible to get when you’re changing the players every 12 to 18 months. So that led us to the conclusion this is about governance and we need to have a discussion with the public about what to do about that.

CAVANAUGH: And what have you – what changes are you suggesting? I know that you’ve done some study about other school districts and how they’re governed across the state. What are some of the different approaches that your group is perhaps suggesting?

HIMELSTEIN: Well, you know, I do want to be clear that we’re not advocating a definitive proposal as of yet but what we have done is done significant background research on this. We’ve taken a look at other communities across the nation. We took a look at different sizes of school boards and they range from 5 to 7 to 9 to 11 and more across the country. We’ve taken a look at how they’re elected. Some are elected all at large as opposed to our system here where we have 5 elected by sub-district and then at large. There are major cities in the country that have all appointed members. There’s some hybrid models as well. So we looked at a lot of different things. We certainly have ideas but at this point we think it’s most important to engage the public. What does the public think about this? We’ve established a website. Myself, others in our group, are going around town talking about this and seeing what people think.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Scott, I read an article about a community meeting in Tierrasanta where the group, San Diegans 4 Great Schools presented these – this – these ideas and apparently there was some people who were rather confused about what you were talking about when you were talking about governance at the San Diego Unified School District and making changes. So what – Is there anything specific, a group of specific things that you think the current school board of San Diego Unified School (sic) is doing wrong.

HIMELSTEIN: Well, one, I think it would be good to establish a long term vision for student achievement in the district and to have a strategic plan that can be implemented over a period of years. Some sort of consistency. And I think we got to get to the point where we can have that in San Diego. You mentioned the Tierrasanta meeting, certainly, you know, some people were confused about it. It’s not necessarily a clear, you know, a clear solution. We’re not saying it’s perfect. But we think it’s better than what we’re doing now. What we’re doing now is not working and we’ve got to come up with another way of doing it. I would also say there are also many in that Tierrasanta group that have signed up on our website as a supporter. So people will have mixed reactions about this. That’s okay. Our focus now is to get the idea out in the public and hopefully get enough input, enough ideas so our coalition can go back and at some point in the future, and we’re not sure when, maybe there is a proposal for change that the people of San Diego can decide on.

CAVANAUGH: Now if there were a proposal for change, how would that be implemented? Would it have to be approved by voters?

HIMELSTEIN: Yeah, one of the interesting—most interesting—things we found in our research is that the charter of the City of San Diego actually holds the keys to the governance of our school system. The city charter lays out how many board members there will be and how they will be elected. So all of the citizens in San Diego have a vote on that, so any change would have to be brought to the people of San Diego and there would have to be a vote and they could either agree or disagree with what ought to be done.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Mayor Jerry Sanders was in attendance at the press conference when you released this study and he seems to support the efforts of San Diegans 4 Great Schools to reexamine the way the school district is run. What kind of weight does that put behind your efforts to have the mayor’s support?

HIMELSTEIN: Well, we thought it was terrific that the mayor decided to support us and show up. And as he said that day, there’s very little that he does in his job that’s not affected by the success of students in this – in our school system. It’s tied to crime, it’s tied to our economic prosperity, it’s tied to our social welfare. So I have advocated for a long time, as has others, that the city has a real interest in the success of its school system and I don’t think there’s a better way to show that than the mayor of the city stepping out and saying, okay, enough is enough, let’s reexamine this. We don’t, you know, we don’t have a definitive proposal but let’s get this idea out to the public and see what people think. Have a debate about it. Have good constructive discussions. But having the mayor there does communicate that the city has a real substantial interest in the success of our school system.

CAVANAUGH: So, Scott, where do you go from here? As you say, to gather these ideas and to have this debate that you’re hoping for in maybe reevaluating the governance of the San Diego Unified School Board.

HIMELSTEIN: So we’re doing a number of things. One, we have a website that we’ve established, We’re asking people to comment on there. Myself and other members of our coalition are attending all kinds of community group meetings over the next several weeks, talking about this. Again, asking for input. So it’s a public outreach – public outreach effort.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for coming in here, explaining all this to us. Thank you, Scott.

HIMELSTEIN: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Scott Himelstein is director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at USD, one of the organizers of San Diegans 4 Great Schools. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard, go online, Coming up, the highs and lows of the current real estate market in San Diego. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.