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Tussle Over School Board Elections Could Be Settled At The Ballot Box

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.

In October, members of the San Diego City Council called on the public to make the first move in an effort to reform San Diego Unified School Board elections. Elected officials and some parents have called for a shake-up of the relatively static board.

On Wednesday, the council members will get their wish — times four. The Rules Committee will hear the following proposals from private citizens:

–A former San Diego Unified parent and vocal critic of the district, Sally Smith, wants to increase the size of the school board from five trustees to nine; eliminate at-large elections so trustees are elected only by the residents in the areas they represent; and set a two-term limit.

–A group called Community Voices for Education wants to keep the board at five members but would eliminate at-large elections and set a two-term limit. The group lists as its lead contacts Michelle Anderson, a regional manager for the California Charter Schools Association, and Bret Caslavka, a fitness instructor who teaches physical education at a charter school. Caslavka said the group includes both charter and traditional school advocates, parents and educators.

–Jeff Bennett, a San Diego Unified parent who serves on an advisory committee for the district and last year spoke out against deep budget cuts, wants to increase the size of the board from five members to seven, eliminate at-large elections, and set a two-term limit.

–John Stump, a City Heights attorney and vocal San Diego progressive, wants to split San Diego Unified schools into two districts, each with their own board of trustees. A brand new district and board would govern elementary schools. San Diego Unified’s board would govern high schools and potentially merge with the community college district.

Wednesday’s committee hearing is the first step in bringing the matter to voters under Council Policy 000-21. (The separate and much-publicized citizens’ initiative process would require signature gathering.) If approved this week, the proposals would get a second committee hearing before going to the full council. Once a proposal has the council’s blessing, the City Attorney’s Office would draft the official language for the June ballot.

The school board itself is proposing to assemble a committee to study authoring a November ballot proposal. That would need to be heard in committee by early June to make the ballot.

The call for proposals came after a grand jury report recommended term limits, district-level elections and additional trustees for the school board, which last year had to approve $124 million in budget cuts and will have OK more this year. It has faced increasing scrutiny from parents and community groups over its fiscal management, policy decisions and a perceived lack of transparency.

“The president of the United States — term limits. The mayor of every city — term limits. You’ve got City Council — there are term limits. And by having term limits, it allows change,” said Caslavka. “We need change in the San Diego Unified School District.”

Trustee Richard Barrera has served about a decade on the board and has said the reform efforts are driven by politics, not what is best for students. Council Republicans first floated the idea of term limits and district-level elections shortly after a measure backed by Democrats changed city council runoffs. Though school board seats are nonpartisan, the body tilts heavily left.

“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,” Barrera said in October.

The movement, however, has gained traction among parents at school cluster meetings.

Elizabeth Distler Nagy attends such meetings and has been involved with a district advisory committee for its Gifted and Talented Education program. She said she’s grown “highly skeptical” of the district.

“District transparency and services to help each child (achieve growth) have decreased as the rhetoric has increased. More and more responsibility is put on the school site with less support — less accountability and transparency — at the district level,” she said in an email. “The only way the situation will change is if the board and administration are motivated to change.”

It is unclear how many San Diego Unified parents share Nagy’s sentiment. But past decisions on term limits for other governmental bodies suggests there would be broad support for one of the four measures.

In October, members of the San Diego City Council called on the public to make the first move in an effort to reform San Diego Unified School Board elections. Elected officials and some parents have called for a shake-up of the relatively static board.

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