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City Council Approves Ballot Measure For District Elections At San Diego Unified

The San Diego Unified School District headquarters is shown on March 19, 2020.
Zoë Meyers
The San Diego Unified School District headquarters is shown on March 19, 2020.

The San Diego City Council gave unanimous approval Tuesday for a measure on the November ballot that if passed would lead to a more diverse pool of candidates in elections for the San Diego Unified School District board.

Voters will decide in the general election whether the state’s second-largest school district should transition from at-large November elections to district-by-district contests for the seats on its five-member board.

City Council Approves Ballot Measure For District Elections At San Diego Unified
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

Advocates say eliminating citywide elections would reduce the price of running a campaign and encourage residents from lower-income communities to run for office.

“This is an extremely important issue in my community in particular, and you can tell that from the calls we’ve received, and it’s something folks have been fighting for a long time,” said City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, who represents neighborhoods in Southeast San Diego. “ I’m very very happy to support this today.”

If voters approve the measure in November, district-by-district elections will begin in the 2022 election cycle. That’s too late for LaWana Richmond, but she’s thrilled at the possibility of change.

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In the March primary, Richmond campaigned in Southeast San Diego in the race for Subdistrict E, which contains schools serving a large proportion of the district’s low-income and African American students. She finished second in the primary and thereby made it to the November runoff, where the stakes are higher as is the cost of campaigning.

“When you have a less-resourced candidate being able to get your message out to an entire city is much more challenging,” Richmond said. “Changing it from a citywide race to a district only race may increase the number of people who are willing to put themselves out there.”

Richmond is going up against Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who has benefited from the at-large system. In 2016, she finished second in the primary but won in the general election when all San Diego voters cast their ballots. Despite these outcomes, Whitehurst-Payne said she’s been an advocate for her subdistrict, especially during the pandemic.

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“I was a voice have been prolific in articulating what our needs are,” she said. “Take what happened with the food issues and what happened with the computer devices. I’ve articulated what needs to happen for our children to be represented in District E as well as throughout the district.”

Both candidates agree that school board races will become more equitable if this ballot measure passes. Richmond said the board member for Subdistrict E needs to focus on the unique challenges facing its students.

“You know there are individuals in other districts that have this experience where they’re working two or three jobs to support their families, but there’s a high concentration of that in my district,” she said. “There can be a challenge making sure they’re not drowned out by someone who has more relationships outside the neighborhood.”