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Four Candidates Competing To Lead City Schools

Aired 10/25/12 on KPBS News.

Two contests for San Diego Unified school board seats probably haven't been on the radars of lots of voters in the City of San Diego.

— San Diego Unified's Board of Education races may not draw the attention that city council or mayoral races do. But the board's five trustees manage a district with more than 13,000 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $1 billion -- roughly the same size as the city of San Diego's. They also have to develop policies that drive the education of more than 115,000 students in district-run schools.

The San Diego Unified Board of Education building at 4100 Normal Street.
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Above: The San Diego Unified Board of Education building at 4100 Normal Street.

In District A, which stretches from Clairemont Mesa to Mira Mesa, Board of Education President John Lee Evans is defending his seat against Mark Powell, a realtor and former teacher and school administrator.

The district's funding comes largely from the state and managing cuts to that funding has dominated board business for years. Even if voters pass a tax increase in November, the district will likely face another shortfall next year. Evans said the board managed to recall 1,500 pink-slipped teachers this year by improving negotiating with employee unions - especially the teachers union.

"So the difference for next year is compared to the animosity that was there earlier in the year," Evans said. "We actually came to an agreement with the that we would sit down right after the election and look at the facts and figures and work together on how to solve this problem."

Powell, the challenger, said he'd streamline the distrct's administration further and would have supported applying for direct federal funding.

"One of the first measures would be -- apply for the Race to the Top grant, which is a $40 million grant," he said. "I would also look to find teachers that are currently in non-classroom teaching positions and work with the human resources department to get teachers back into the classroom"

Race to the Top is a highly competitive federal program that will award four-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million to a handful of school districts this year.

Budget cuts or not, educating the city's students can't be put on hold. In 2010, the board adopted a long-term plan called Vision 2020. It included developing community councils and collaborative planning time for teachers. The goal was to give communities, families and educators more control over determining what their schools needed. Incumbent John Lee Evans believes it's improving neighborhood schools.

"What we're doing is really setting up some real standards to measure - what is a quality school and then we want to publish those standards and make it available to the public, not just the test scores, but the full range of what's going on at the schools," he said.

But Powell said the board turned a blind eye to indicators that the recessions wouldn't end quickly. He said that means there is no plan to help schools cope with current cuts.

"In theory Vision 2020 is a great plan," he said. "However, I need to work on Vision Right Now. It's great to forecast out into the future and that's necessary, but the way the plan was designed it didn't account for any economic factors."

The candidates for District E would face the same demands.

William Ponder worked as a public school teacher and community college and university instructor. He's facing Marne Foster, an instructor and administrator for San Diego's community college district, in a race to represent schools in southeast San Diego neighborhoods like Paradise Hills, Skyline and Encanto.

To balance future budgets, Ponder would focus on bringing money into schools through grants and leasing unused property, but also said personnel costs have to be cut.

"We have to go back in and look at the collective bargaining agreements," he said. "We have to sit down with all of the interested parties and start to look at - are there things within those agreements that specifically can help us in terms of reducing some of that deficit."

Foster's approach is similar to measures a majority of current board members have supported in the past.

"We have to maintain the cuts that are far away from the classroom. So, we'd have to look at administration clearly," she said. "We really need to partner with other foundations, other community based organizations. Beyond that, it's putting the key stakeholders together and putting pressure on our legislators."

Ponder and Foster agree that many District E schools are behind academically. Ponder said the district doesn't so enough to systematically spread strategies that improve students test scores to struggling schools.

'I think if you talk to parents and students and principals and vice principals at those schools, they will say that probably they're not getting the level of support and the quality of that support," he said,

According to Foster, the district needs to focus on parent involvement to improve academic achievement.

"Training parents how to collaborate with teachers so that their children achieve and are successful," she said. "I believe that the district is going in the right direction and there is a lot we can do to improve it."

Whichever candidates win, they'll only be two of five board trustees. Being able to collaborate with those colleagues will determine how many of their ideas become reality.

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