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School Board Election Comes At Precarious Time For District


Public education in San Diego city schools is shaped by the decisions of five school board trustees. Two of them are up for re-election next week. Some people say a possible leadership change comes at a precarious time for the San Diego Unified School District.

Cindy McIntyre is vice president of the San Diego Unified Council PTA. She spends countless hours working with moms and dads across the district.

McIntyre says when it comes to school board politics, she's noticed something different during the past year – the five school trustees are actually working together.

“This set of trustees have come together a little more,” McIntyre said. “(The board) doesn’t have the direct division that it used to have under a couple different superintendents.”

San Diego Unified School Board was once notorious for its political infighting and name-calling. Many people believe that rancor drove away the district's last three superintendents.

But in 2008, two new trustees joined the board. Some observers say that change has quelled some of the discontent.

McIntyre now worries the upcoming school board elections will once again set the district back.

“You take two steps forward, one step back. That's really difficult for parents and they get frustrated. We only have our students in school for a certain amount of time.”

San Diego Unified is still searching for a permanent superintendent which is why stability is one of the buzz words in the school board races.

Two of the longest-standing trustees are up for reelection: John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura.

The incumbents have served under three different superintendents over the last four years. Their votes will determine who will be the district's new leader come summer.

Nakamura and de Beck say despite all the changes, their commitment to this school board and San Diego school kids have remained constant.

de Beck, who's been on the board for 20 years, is facing some stiff competition. Challengers say he's been on the board too long and has wild-haired reform ideas that get little traction.

Nakamura was first elected in 2002. Her contenders, teacher Kevin Beiser and businessman Stephen Rosen, say Nakamura's priorities are misplaced. They point to her support of teacher layoffs and the city's downtown library plan.

For many, the choice comes down to change or to keep the status quo.

Bill McGirr, director of the Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, is in favor of keeping the board in tact. He says a stable school board translates into a long standing superintendent.

McGirr says there has already been a turnover of principals at school sites, as well as a turnover of district officials at the central office. Now the election threatens the stability of the school board.

“All of this comes in the face of the worse budget crisis we've ever had to experience,” McGirr said. “It's almost the perfect storm. I don't want this district to fail.”

Teacher union leaders say they don't want the district to fail either, which is why the board needs a new voice.

Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, says the union is targeting de Beck because he's not supportive of teachers. For example, he's pushed for teacher pay cuts over furloughs.

“Our overall rule is that we'll fight for the things we believe in,” Zombro said.

The powerful union has thrown its support behind Scott Barnett, a Republican who used to be the head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Zombro believes Barnett will reign in school spending so that it focuses on the basics and not on big reforms.

“(Quality education) is not a flashy program or a big consultant or a big splash. What it takes is a positive place for children to learn, for parents to interact with their schools, and for teachers to teach.”

Whatever the outcome, the board will have to manage the second largest school district in the state with a lot less money. It will also have to push for better academic results while dealing with a persistent achievement gap.

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