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Council Members Ask San Diegans To Pick Up School Board Election Hot Potato

The seat where Marne Foster sat during San Diego Unified School Board meeting...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: The seat where Marne Foster sat during San Diego Unified School Board meetings before resigning sits empty, Feb. 16, 2016.

Members of the San Diego City Council are urging the public to put forward a 2018 ballot initiative to change how school board members are elected.

San Diego Unified is exploring a 2018 ballot initiative to boost school revenue. Meanwhile, members of the San Diego City Council are encouraging the public to put forward another measure that would shake up the board in charge of that revenue.

A recent grand jury report recommends the San Diego Unified School Board operate more like City Council. Trustees would be elected by their neighborhoods instead of in at-large elections. They would also face term limits and have more colleagues on the board.

In voting on their response to the grand jury, Council President Myrtle Cole and members Chris Cate and Mark Kersey encouraged citizens to present a ballot initiative to their rules committee in January proposing the changes. Barbara Bry said she would like the school district to bring forward a proposal.

“I would love to have that discussion and debate when that time comes,” Cate said. “I wish we could do it now but we tried that before and it didn’t work out, so now the opportunity to move forward is through the public.”

Cate and the other Republicans on council issued a memo in March calling for a ballot initiative. Though the city charter governs school board elections, the council is unclear on whether it has the legal authority to make changes to how trustees are elected, because district and city boundaries don’t match up.

“I think we need to move beyond partisan politics, which I think is what’s driving this right now, and really have a broader community conversation about this,” said School Board President Richard Barrera, who has served about a decade on the board.

RELATED: On Heels Of Measure K, San Diego Republicans Look To Change School Board Elections

The memo from Republicans proposes changes similar to those in voter-approved Measure K, which was backed by labor and opposed by Republicans including Cate. While the rule changes improved odds for Democrats in city elections, they could hurt Democrats on the school board.

At Monday’s meeting, however, Democratic council members David Alvarez and Georgette Gomez said they believe term limits are a good route to take. They stopped short of recommending the city direct changes in school board elections.

Republicans Scott Sherman and Lorie Zapf said they'd prefer the city take swift action on the matter.

“In whatever way we need to get to it, we need to get to it,” Zapf said. “(The trustees are) often a rubber stamp because they don’t have the staff to go over all these issues and they’re representing way too many people. And frankly, Mr. Barrera, the only Latino, is a labor leader who probably spends more time in the halls lobbying here at City Hall than he does on behalf of the kids that he is supposed to be representing.”

Barrera said he and Board Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who lost the local primary but won the citywide runoff last year, are planning a process whereby community members can weigh in on the matter.

At the city council meeting, LaShae Collins, who ran against Whitehurst-Payne and is a staffer for Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, read a note from the lawmaker. In it, Weber says she’ll seek school board election changes through state channels if locals don’t act.

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