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High School Students Hold San Diego Mayoral Candidates’ Feet To Fire

Evening Edition

Above: San Diego’s mayoral candidates Bob Filner and Carl DeMaio met for another debate on Friday, Sept. 7. But this one was a bit different. KPBS Metro Reporter Katie Orr tells us about this debate run by teenagers - at La Jolla Country Day School.

Today’s event had all the earmarks of a classic political debate. There were the stately candidates, the dignified backdrop and the assembled media. But there was something notably different about this debate. It was being run by teenagers. And these teenagers knew what they were talking about.

For instance La Jolla Country Day Senior Alex Garcia challenged City Councilman Carl DeMaio on the city’s decision to transfer booking responsibilities for the public Convention Center to the private Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“How would you prevent a repeat of the spending abuses and poor management policies that were the reason the city took booking power away from the bureau in 2004?” Garcia asked.

Today’s debate was the result of months of hard work by high school students at the Pruess School and La Jolla Country Day. They researched issues, worked with journalists and crafted questions designed to put San Diego’s mayoral candidates on the spot.

Preparations for the debate initially began last spring when students got the commitment of the mayoral campaigns. Work picked up again just two days after the new school year began when government teacher Jonathan Shulman brainstormed with his seniors about the issues they might want to bring up.

The kids enthusiastically offered up ideas from the Convention Center expansion to outsourcing city services. Senior Jessica Lewis wanted to hear a discussion about a subject that plays a major role in her life.

“I think I personally want to hear the most about education, even though I know they’re limited in what they can do,” she said. ”I’m curious to hear what they see in the future for San Diego schools.”

Garcia wanted to focus on the future as well.

“Well, I hope they’ll give us a plan, not just for the short term and their prospects right now,” he said, “but for San Diego long term. Since we’re young and we’re thinking of probably coming back to San Diego after college, or if we stay in San Diego for college, we really are invested in the future of San Diego.”

Amir Ferry said the candidates should remember that some of the students creating the questions will also be casting ballots in November.

“This year is actually, I feel like it’s a political awakening,” he said. “It’s my first year I’ve been able to vote, so I’ve been following national elections, Congressional elections, and I think it’s really important to follow your local politics and the mayoral office. So I really hope to get a greater understanding of that.”

Schulman wants his students to have a better understanding too. His classes have had local college professors and political pundits as guest speakers. And he said the debate fits right into his curriculum.

“One of the things that I’m always trying to push with the students is civic engagement,” he said. “And find any opportunity for them to, not just read about it, not just watch it, but to participate in it.”

Schulman said these kids are determined to get some real answers out of the candidates.

“They can hold the candidates' feet to the fire in a way that journalists can’t," he said. “Journalists need to be able to maintain that relationship and keep access, or you can’t do your job. And the students here, they’ve got one shot at it.”

And the students took that shot today peppering Filner and DeMaio with questions ranging from public safety to border issues to the pension. The candidates each offered their congratulations on a job well done, and at the end, a job offer from Filner.

“By the way, whichever candidate you like, I’m sure I could speak for Carl, we could offer internships in our campaigns,” he said.

Judging from the interest of the students, it’s an offer Filner will likely have to make good on.

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