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Group Is Challenging San Diego Unified’s Elections Instead Of Its Incumbents

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.

There are no challengers in this year’s races to represent San Diego Unified parents and children. Incumbent school board trustees Kevin Beiser and Michael McQuary will more or less cruise into their third and second terms come November.

Low engagement around school board races — candidate puddles instead of pools, and dismal voter turnout — is common across the country. But some community members say low engagement around this school board, in particular, has to do with the increasingly uncommon circumstances around how its members are elected. They’re pushing to change that.

“We need change within the membership of the board. We need to make sure that parents in the communities have a better voice,” said Bret Caslavka, who pulled papers to run against Beiser but decided against it. Four other people also initiated campaigns but backed out or did not produce enough signatures to get on the ballot.

“It came down to, what do you want to do as an individual?” Caslavka said. “I want to be a voice for the kids, and at this particular time, this is the best way to do that.”

By “this,” Caslavka means election reform. He’s part of a group called Community Voices for Education that’s pushing for a ballot measure that would establish term limits for trustees and eliminate the districtwide runoff so they’re selected only by the areas they’ll represent. Others have proposed adding board members so there’s more representation to go around.

The proposals join a recent surge in election reform efforts. In 2010, voters approved term limits for San Diego County supervisors, following a wave of term limit initiatives for lawmakers across the country throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. And one by one, school districts and municipal boards across the state have been going to district-only elections to avoid litigation under the California Voting Rights Act.

San Diego Unified has been slower to change because its elections are governed by the San Diego City Charter, meaning any changes would require a charter amendment.

Photo by Megan Burks

San Diego Unified School Board President Kevin Beiser welcomes students into his classroom at Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista, May 1, 2018.

Last year, the Democratic-majority City Council rejected an amendment plan from council Republicans. And earlier this year, it punted on four initiatives proposed for the June ballot, including one from Caslavka’s group. Instead, it asked the Democratic-majority school board to gather community feedback and present its findings next month for a potential November ballot initiative.

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Board President and candidate Beiser said he would consider the feedback and base his decision on that. But in an interview, he argued board members are already elected locally because they must survive a local June primary before the citywide runoff. He also argued against term limits, pointing to his 2010 win over incumbent Katherine Nakamura.

“If somebody is not effective, then the voters have the opportunity to throw that person out every four years,” he said. “So every four years, we have the opportunity to limit the term of a school board trustee.”

Beiser had the support of the teachers’ union in his race against Nakamura, who had taken some blows for her support of a controversial superintendent. He had the union’s endorsement again in 2014.

But Beiser said he believes he was re-elected and isn’t being challenged this time around because the public can see he’s effective.

“We have the highest graduation rate in the state of California — No. 1 Latino graduation rate, No. 1 African-American graduation rate,” Beiser said. “We were just recognized in Washington, D.C., as the No. 1 school district in the United States of America with the highest academic growth when you compare San Diego Unified with other like school districts.”

Beiser said his support for efforts such as music education and professional development for new teachers contributed to those accolades.

“The campaign to run unopposed is a long, four-year campaign of listening to the voters and fighting the good fight on behalf of the kids,” Beiser said.

Photo by Megan Burks

Bret Caslavka stands in front of the San Diego Unified boardroom, April 30, 2018.

But Caslavka argues Beiser and other long-time board members won because the current election process is stacked against change.

“It’s a significant process,” he said. “You have to get 200 signatures just to get your name on the ballot. And then you have to run in a primary in June within your sub-districts. And then if you finish within the top two within that sub-district, then you go on to the general election, where it’s citywide voting.”

A San Diego County Grand Jury report last year found some candidates spent more than $350,000 to reach the city’s more than 300,000 voters in the runoff. It concluded that the cost of running, along with the incumbent advantage of having name recognition, resulted in a board “that does not always ... reflect the diversity of the district’s population,” and that must rely on financial backing from special-interest groups.

“By instituting sub-district elections and term limits, a large part of the elections process will be returned to the people,” the report says.

While the literature is mixed, many studies have shown term limits do in fact result in more diverse representation, especially in California.

But some of the same studies have also shown term limits for California lawmakers have led to a less experienced legislative body, putting more power in the hands of legislative staff and the governor. And a Mercury News analysis of bills after the addition of term limits found about a 10 percentage point increase in bills sponsored by outside groups.

Community Voices for Education, the group pushing for school board election reform, has a diverse membership but includes charter school advocates. Caslavka said the push isn’t about special interests.

“If everything was going so well financially and everybody was doing what they said they were going to do, these conversations wouldn’t even be taking place,” he said, citing the district’s need to cut $124 million from its budget in 2017.

RELATED: Barrera, San Diego Nonprofits Eye Commercial Property Taxes To Boost Schools

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

It’s unclear just how broad that conversation has been, though it started as early as 2010. At one of the district’s meetings to solicit feedback on election reform, Trace Cimins said she hadn’t heard much about the proposals and attended to learn more.

After the meeting, she said she doesn’t think the changes are needed.

“I think our school board is set up pretty well right now and I feel that there’s a good, overall representation,” Cimins said. “I do feel that citizens need to be more aware of the fact that these are elected officials who tell the superintendent and district what to do, they set the policy.”

But, she added, not everyone at the meeting felt the same.

“We had varying degrees of opinions, but the bottom line, everyone wants what’s best for the students,” Cimins said.

The meeting organizers are expected to give a report on their findings, as well as results from an online survey, at a school board meeting this month. Beiser and his colleagues will then decide whether to recommend to the City Council that it put election reform before the voters in November.

Incumbent school board trustees Kevin Beiser and Michael McQuary will more or less cruise into their third and second terms. But some community members are hoping to install a few speed bumps on the road to re-election in San Diego Unified.


Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed the proposal for additional school board members to Community Voices For Education.

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