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Surprised By S.D. Unified School Board Race Results?

Surprised By S.D. Unified School Board Race Results?
What do the June election results signal about the public's mood toward the San Diego Unified School Board? We'll discuss the embattled incumbents, the search for a superintendent and budget woes.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Okay, now we turn to the San Diego Unified School District and its board. So, David Ogul, before we look at the two seats that are up for election, let’s look at what’s happening in the district to set the stage. Let’s begin with the district’s problem holding onto school superintendents. Three resigned in four years. Why?

DAVID OGUL (Education Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Managing the San Diego Unified School District’s probably one of the toughest jobs in America right now. You have a board that has a reputation, whether it’s deserved or not, of micromanaging and that has driven people crazy. It’s, you know, they’re just not administrators and, I mean, they’re trying to tell the superintendent what to do, micromanaging them. As a matter of fact, I know Carl Cohn had a no-meddling clause in his contract and…

PENNER: No meddling?


OGUL: Yes, he – It didn’t work too well. But, you know, the other reason is San Diego Unified, it’s one of – it’s the second largest district in the state and they have cut, been forced to cut because of the thievery that’s going on in Sacramento, some $300 million over the past few years in their budgets. They cut $90 million in 2008-2009, $93 million last year. This coming year they’re cutting – have to cut $108 million. It could get worse. And then looking at 2011-2012, they might have to cut an additional $60 or $70 million. Now if you’re a superintendent, do you want to deal with that?

PENNER: Well, obviously they, at this point, Scott—and I know Voice of San Diego’s following the school quite assiduously—at this point they were supposed to have already danced out their interviewees for superintendent for the public to vet, basically. But apparently they don’t have enough yet and so they’ve postponed it. What’s going on?

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, don’t know. I think we’d all like to – like a seat at the table as well to see what’s going on. I, you know, I can’t imagine the difficulty of having some sort of public search for a major, you know, executive position, so I don’t necessarily go along with those that say that this has to be completely public. But on the other hand, you know, this – I don’t know who’d want to take that job. As David said, it’s going to be thankless. And nobody’s survived very long in it, and the Board of Education is, frankly, dismissive of the idea that they even need an executive, which is not some kind of environment I’d want to operate in. And so I think that going forward, this district is going downhill and it’ll continue going downhill until some kind of dynamic switches that I can’t even picture.

PENNER: Well, to all of you who have students in the San Diego City Schools, that’s certainly not a delightful thought, that it’s going downhill. And we’d love to hear from you. What do you think about what’s going on with that school board, the school board which actually, in this race, first time I can remember where the incumbents didn’t handily win. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit. I want to get back to the superintendent selection. Barbara, I think it was Scott who said, you know, that the board considered to whether to just give up on a one leader for the district and try some other model. What happened there?

BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher/Executive Editor, San Diego News Network): Well, I guess they decided not to because they’ve moved ahead with trying to find a superintendent, and they do have a number of candidates and I thought they were – On Monday, they’re going to release the names of the candidates.


OGUL: Yeah, I think it’s – I think it’s Tuesday.

BRY: Yeah, Tuesday.

OGUL: Tuesday. There’s three finalists that they’ll unveil and then they’ll have the meeting set up with the public to, you know, basically have the public questioning.

BRY: Yeah, and one of them is probably the guy, Bill Komba – Kowba…

OGUL: Kowba…

BRY: …who’s the current – who’s the interim right now. And what surprised me was, in the last week they named 8 area superintendent – deputy superintendent types, and why you would do that before you have a new leader who would theoretically want his or her own people, was very surprising to me.

OGUL: Well, yeah, that is interesting. And there was some speculation – there is some speculation that that shows that Bill Kowba is – may, you know, have been – may be the choice because he’s already there. Also, geez, I forget her name, she used to be with San Diego Unified. She went up to LA and they brought her back as an area superintendent. I think – I don’t know if it was ever confirmed but she was one of the candidates…

BRY: Oh, Angela Bass.

OGUL: Angela Bass, right.


OGUL: She was very highly thought of by a lot of people in that district. She is very highly thought of.

PENNER: Well, apparently the board is not satisfying its constituents because both board members up for election have had the bad news, one worse than the other. Scott, give us the results, what they mean.

LEWIS: Well, it’s important to remember, Gloria, that actually just last time around, an incumbent, Mitz Lee, was pushed out of office by her challenger…

PENNER: That’s right. You’re right.

LEWIS: …John Lee Evans. The big surprise in this election, of course, is that Katherine Nakamura, who represents, I think, the sort of northeast area of the city, she will not make the runoff. Now remember, in school board elections, the top two people from the primary go to a runoff for the whole city and no matter what happens, they – the top two will always go. What’s interesting about this is that she didn’t even make the second place, it looks like. She’s – Her – It’s very, very close but the gap keeps widening between her and the second place finisher, Mr. Rosen, and Kevin Beiser, who are, you know, very interesting and energetic candidates out there. So I don’t know how this is going to play out but that was the huge shock for me and, I think, a lot of people out of this election, given everything that was going on, that she wouldn’t even make the final.

PENNER: Just clarify something that Scott said, these school board candidates, they run within their district, don’t they?

OGUL: Right, there’s five, they call them subdistricts, I just call them districts, A, B, C, D, is that it, E. And – Go back to Sesame Street.

PENNER: Back to school.

BRY: You’re the education editor.

OGUL: Yeah, I’m a product of the public education system. Anyway, in the primary in the subdistrict elections, it’s only the people in that district that vote. So in this case with Subdistrict B with Katherine Nakamura, it was only people in that district, which is, you know, Tierrasanta, Scripps Ranch, the northeastern part of the city. In the election in November, everybody in the San Diego Unified School District votes and the incumbents tend to do better in that election. But, as Scott pointed out, Katherine Nakamura’s not going to be there. Now, she’s – she really didn’t campaign. She says that she was busy with the budget. But I also know in talking to a lot of people in the district, Labor wasn’t happy with her and a lot of the employees in the district weren’t happy with her.

PENNER: So she may truly be gone.

OGUL: Yeah, she’s – Well, she’s definitely gone.


BRY: She is gone.

PENNER: She is gone, definitely. Okay. So, I’m looking at Kevin Beiser, who got 39% of the votes. He is a middle school teacher.

OGUL: He was an active campaigner and he had huge signs all over Del Cerro. But, you know, the other person that I don’t want to underestimate is Steve Rosen.

LEWIS: Right.

OGUL: Steve is a very interesting person. I’ve seen him campaigning and the guy is, you know, if you saw him, if you met him, if he gets – if he knocks at, you know, enough doors, he’s going to win that election.

PENNER: What does he do?

OGUL: He’s very charismatic.

PENNER: No, I mean, what does – what is his job?


PENNER: Do you know?

OGUL: It escapes me.

PENNER: Okay. All right. Well, because we know that Kevin Beiser is a schoolteacher, I thought maybe we knew…

OGUL: He’s a math teacher and I believe it’s in the South Bay. A middle school there.

PENNER: Okay. Well, let’s turn to the other district. This is District C, and John de Beck, who has been, what, for 20 years, Barbara?

BRY: Yeah, I think he’s 80 years old now…


BRY: …or almost.

PENNER: Right.

OGUL: Sharp as a tack.

BRY: Yeah, he is sharp. And he’s been a dissident on the board.

PENNER: Yes, and so we have him now running with – against Scott Barnett. And what do we know about Scott Barnett, Scott Lewis?

LEWIS: Oh, he’s an interesting guy. You know, he’s – he used to be the head of the Taxpayers Association locally. He used to be the head of the Lincoln Club locally. He started his own Taxpayers Association, Taxpayers, oh… Now he’s going to kill me. I don’t remember the name of his – It’s (sic) or something like that. And then he – What’s very interesting about this is that the teachers union got so upset with De Beck, a former teacher, a former friend to the union, that they actually decided to endorse this very Republican taxpayer oriented person and – which was just a shock. So you had a – the most bizarre situation where the Lincoln Club and the Teachers Association – teachers union, support the same guy and it appears to have succeeded in at least – I mean, again, they’re both going to go up to a final – This wasn’t very consequential as far as the outcome of it but I think that De Beck even quoted saying, I got my work cut out for me. And I think that – I think he enjoys it and I think he’s – he enjoys being in that position, being older and being able to just say what he wants and he’s not, obviously, running for mayor ever again or he’s not moving on. This is his thing.

PENNER: Okay. All right, so I did promise we were going to look to the future, so let’s look to the future. In November, the school district wants to pass a parcel tax that would beef up its budget. In other words, every homeowner who owns a parcel of land, no matter what size, would pay a certain amount and it would go directly to the school district. What chance do you think they have for that, Barbara?

BRY: Well, I’d like to hope that San Diego – San Diegans will pass it because it’s clear that with the situation in Sacramento, you know, the school budgets are just going to keep getting devastated, but I’m not confident.


OGUL: I’d like to go back as – with my Lakers in the NBA finals, go back what the late Chick Hearn used to always say when a game was out of hand. He said their chances are between slim and none and slim just left the building. A similar tax just went down in flames in LA, and LA’s a little bit more liberal than San Diego. This is not going to pass, which really is going to put the district in a further bind. They’re looking at right now—it’s a moving target—they’re looking at up to a $70 million – or $60, $70 million deficit for the following year, and they were hoping that this would pass and it would raise $58 million annually, so pretty much take care of most of that deficit.

PENNER: David, what does this mean in terms of your – I mean, you’re talking about a large deficit. Now at this point there have not been any teacher layoffs in the district, have there?

OGUL: There – that – you know, that’s – Correct. You’re right. There’ve been no teacher layoffs. However, as the district will point out, they’ve lost well over 600 or 700 teachers. A couple years – Last year, I think it was, they lost 500 through early buyouts. They also have lost a couple hundred, two or three hundred last year or this year of the probationary teachers. So they haven’t laid anybody off but there are far fewer teachers, and in the early grades, K-thru-3, those are getting bigger and in the other grades, it’s starting to get in the other grades, too. So…

PENNER: So what can we expect? A $70 million deficit. If the parcel tax doesn’t pass, what’s going to happen to the school district, Scott.

LEWIS: Oh, I think there are conservatives and reformers that would hope that they reevaluate how they deliver information and there are, you know, for example, if they just – They’re in a situation today we reported where they’re banning Google from the schools, various attributes of Google. And it’s – You know, you wonder if they’re in touch with the best ways to deliver information to kids and to help them understand the world as it is. On the other hand, you know, the reason that a parcel tax is going to struggle is because it, unlike a tax that would fund facilities, this would be a tax that could be used simply to fund salaries or actual personnel needs. And I think that people are frustrated and some are frustrated that they – that, you know, the money, they feel, whether right or wrong, is not being used in the most efficient way possible. And until that is somehow addressed and until there’s somehow some understanding, okay, we’ve done everything we can to reform, now we need more money to build, until that happens and it’ll continue to deteriorate, both – but the buildings will be nice.


BRY: People have lost faith in all levels of government, Gloria, and they don’t – they really don’t trust government to spend their money wisely. And, you know, I think it starts, you know, with the mayor, you know, maybe it starts with the governor or the mayor, you know, trying – effectively communicating to people what government does and what it really costs to do.

PENNER: Okay, so just quickly once around the table before we have to end this session. Which races will you be paying attention to in November? Barbara?

BRY: The Ron Roberts race, probably the most – one of the key local races.

PENNER: Okay, and David.

OGUL: I’ll be looking at the two school board races. Those will be interesting.

PENNER: And will occupy all your time, I guess. All right, Scott, can you pick out a couple of races that you’re going to be paying attention to?

LEWIS: The race to replace Donna Frye on the city council in District 6, Lorie Zapf and Howard Wayne, that will be a classic slugfest in the way that, you know, when Kevin Faulconer versus Michael Zucchet in, what, 2002 were. These – there’s a classic sort of business versus labor sometimes slugfest and this is setting up to be one of those. And I don’t want to watch it because it’s going to be ugly. I think it’s going to be less intellectual than anything we saw in the South Bay but it’ll be an important one.

PENNER: Just very quickly, what about Carl DeMaio’s attempt to get a proposition on…

BRY: Oh, sorry.

PENNER: …the ballot in November.

BRY: Sorry, I actually think that’s going to be the key battle of the November election and it’s going to be the thing that – on which the most money is spent. There’s going to be millions. Carl has already raised $500,000 and spent a lot of that to gather the signatures to get it, hopefully, to – you know, they’re delivering the signatures on Monday to see if they qualify for the November ballot. I believe the National Labor Movement is going to pour in millions of dollars.

PENNER: Okay. Well, with that, I thank you all, Barbara Bry and David Ogul, Scott Lewis – I almost said Scott Barnett…

LEWIS: Right.

PENNER: …and our callers and our listeners. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.