Charter Or Labor Majority At Stake In San Diego County School Board Races
The last time San Diego County Board of Education seats were up for election, charter school backers and labor groups poured more than $1 million into the once-sleepy races to win dominance on the board.
Charter advocates narrowly missed gaining a majority. Now they have a second chance.
Charter-friendly candidate Eric Lund is running to oust incumbent Alicia Muñoz in District 3. Charter school administrator Cheryl James-Ward is challenging incumbent Rick Shea in District 5. If either wins, the board would tilt in favor of charters.
That matters because the board hears appeals when a local school district blocks a charter school from opening. It also oversees the San Diego County Office of Education, which runs schools for students who are homeless, in foster care, or have been involved in the criminal justice system, and provides budget oversight and services for the region’s 42 school districts.
“It’s unfortunate that in some cases there’s this competition between public school districts and charter schools,” said Muñoz. “They’re all part of public education.”
Muñoz has represented the southeastern section of the county on the board since 2014. She said she has tried to “vote as ethically as I am able.”
Last year the board approved six out of 11 charter appeals, board documents show. The trustees typically voted along “party” lines, but there were a few unanimous decisions and one instance where they found compromise by granting a shorter term before the charter would need to seek renewal.
Muñoz said decisions on charter appeals are actually more procedural than election politics would lead you to believe. State law spells out exactly what board members must consider when making their decisions.
“As one of my colleagues on the board said, when we get a charter school appeal, it’s like when you get a car and it has a nice paint job and it’s really shiny,” she said. “We look at it and it looks really nice, but we need to bring in the experts to check the engine, to see whether it really functions. So, personally, I rely on the staff at the county, because they’re the ones putting hours and hours in looking at the application.”
A former English-language teacher and a dean at Cuyamaca College, Muñoz is proud of a decision she said was more subjective: the hiring of Superintendent Paul Gothold in 2017.
“He truly values students, he values staff,” she said. “He believes in equity and social justice.”
And that’s important, said Muñoz, because of the vulnerable populations county schools serve. She said they’re why she’s on the board and why she has no plans to seek office elsewhere.
Challenger Lund teaches business courses at Grossmont and Southwestern colleges and is CEO of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce. He said the board needs to be more open to charter schools.
“I really care about our kids and I really care about our young adults and their career pathways and ensuring that they can find great education alternatives, whether it’s public charters or public schools,” Lund said.
Lund said he would be a voice for charters, but not a rubber stamp.
“I’m for good schools, not bad ones,” he said.
Lund has been teaching for 17 years, inspired by his father who taught English at San Diego State and Grossmont College. And he’s used his position at the chamber to spearhead other efforts in East County, such as a homelessness task force aimed and housing people, reconnecting them with family and addressing the fire risk associated with outdoor cook fires.
Lund said he hopes to leverage his connections in the community and business background to improve career-technical education.
“I sit on a collaborative of the two community colleges out here in East County and the high school district, and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do, make sure they work together and help with CTE so that students can be prepared to enter the workplace and become a strong workforce,” Lund said.
In the opposite corner of the county, Cheryl James-Ward is squaring off with incumbent Rick Shea.
James-Ward is married to the county’s former superintendent, Randy Ward, who resigned amid claims he misspent public funds. He hasn’t settled with attorney Cory Briggs ahead of a jury trial later this year. James-Ward said that says something, and so does her experience.
She’s the chief of academic innovation at e3 Civic High, a charter school in the downtown central library. She hires and coaches the school’s teachers.
James-Ward also teaches educational leadership at San Diego State but said she started her career as a software engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“I actually left JPL for another job that paid a lot more, thinking that that would kind of squelch my desire to teach,” James-Ward said. “It didn’t, so I became a math teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. And there, I really got connected to kids and found I wanted to do more for them.”
James-Ward said she went on to become a principal, then a consultant who helped schools up and down the state turnaround bad scores and bad reputations.
She said she would be supportive of deserving charter schools if elected, but said her interest at e3 was incubating leadership models she could share with other schools. That’s why she wants to be on the board.
“It’s really about how we prepare kids for the modern era of education,” James-Ward said. “That’s my research at San Diego State, that’s what I live, that’s what I breath.”
Her work at e3 has centered around building teams of teachers who create, implement and refine new ideas to move the school and students forward.
Union support helped incumbent Shea survived an expensive run against charter-backed Mark Wyland in 2016, after being appointed to the board a year earlier. This year, hardly any contributions have flowed into the campaigns.
“Maybe the objectivity prevailed, rather than the special interests of wanting someone to rubber stamp things,” Shea suggested.
He said he approves charters that are good for kids and denies those that aren’t.
Shea said he’s on the board to represent the community’s most vulnerable children. He spent much of his 30 years as an educator teaching in the county’s juvenile court schools.
“By me being in the classroom with those students, knowing their needs more than the normal, average person would, I think that’s a real asset to this board, because many times, this is their last chance,” said Shea, who has also served as the mayor of Encinitas.
Shea says he wants to continue to be an advocate for the county’s students and to nurture a recent partnership with the District Attorney’s office to prevent school violence. The office of education brought together 200 members of the education and law enforcement communities last month to discuss protocols for school shootings.
The races for county school board will be decided in the primary, meaning the candidates will learn their fates and the that of the board majority in June.