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District, Union-Backed Proposal On School Board Elections Inching Toward The Ballot

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education building is shown in this photo, Sept. 15, 2017.

Fifteen months, 12 proposals, and one special committee later, San Diego voters are a step closer to weighing in on school board election reform. The city attorney’s office is now reviewing a ballot proposal that would establish term limits for San Diego Unified trustees — one of the final steps before voters would be asked to weigh in this November.

At its meeting Wednesday, the city council’s rules committee heard eight proposals on school board elections. It voted to forward one to the city attorney — a proposal from Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne to limit trustees to 12 years of service.

The committee will consider the measure once more after it’s vetted, then they would send it to the full city council and, later, the ballot.

While school matters are technically nonpartisan, the committee voted along party lines. Whitehurst-Payne’s proposal has support from the all-Democratic school board, the San Diego Education Association, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, and representatives from labor-friendly think tanks Center On Policy Initiatives and In The Public Interest.

Democrats Barbara Bry, Myrtle Cole and Chris Ward agreed to move forward with the union-backed proposal, voting down another supported by committee Republicans and community members of all stripes.

That proposal, from a group called Community Voices For Education that formed to challenge the elections, would limit trustees to eight years in office and eliminate citywide runoffs for school board.

It also more closely aligned with community feedback the school district solicited on the committee’s behalf. In January, the committee asked the school board to gather community feedback on the matter after hearing four election proposals.

How We Got Here

March 2017: City Council Republicans float ballot proposal on school board elections.

May 2017: Grand jury report supports election reforms.

October 2017: City rules committee backs away from city-led proposal, calls for citizen proposals on school board elections.

January 2018: Rules committee hears four citizen proposals but denies them all, instead asking the district to get community feedback on elections.

March-May 2018: District committee collects feedback, recommends a ballot proposal for three four-year terms.

May 2018: School board votes to accept its committee's feedback.

June 2018: City rules committee hears eight proposals on school board elections, favors district's recommendation.

In the resulting survey, about 80 percent of respondents said they wanted term limits for trustees. Nearly 80 percent also wanted a limit of eight years or less. And about 60 percent of respondents wanted to eliminate citywide runoffs.

At Wednesday’s meeting, district appointees who conducted the survey said it wasn’t scientifically sound. Less than 1,300 people responded via a third-party online survey application.

“I have not heard any compelling arguments whatsoever of why we shouldn’t treat school district elections similar to how we treat the county and ourselves here on City Council,” Republican Councilman Chris Cate said. “And it is illustrative that the people in charge are now condemning their own survey.”

Center on Policy Initiatives Director Kyra Greene spoke in favor of the longer terms.

“People do want to see term limits, but we also know that we need terms that are long enough to see policies enacted and followed through on. That’s the way we see the kind of continuity that children need,” she said.

District appointees and trustees have said they aren’t pushing for local-only runoffs because they’re concerned it would further disenfranchise families south of Interstate-8, where there are just two of five board members.

Francine Maxwell is a parent and district watchdog in sub-district E, which is south I-8.

“If we’re going to put children first, let’s put children first. But let’s have a real, honest dialogue,” she said. “People need to stop playing. It’s 2018. We’ve been kicking this can down the street for a long time. Let’s be courageous, San Diego, and let’s do something for the children so that we can actually move the state of education. District E is just begging you.”

The rules committee is expected to weigh in again July 11.

The city attorney’s office is now reviewing a ballot proposal that would establish three four-year term limits for San Diego Unified trustees. The review is one of the final steps before voters would be asked to weigh in this November.

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