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Businessman And Math Teacher Compete For San Diego Unified School Board

Kevin Beiser and Tom Keliinoi are show in these undated photos.
KPBS Staff
Kevin Beiser and Tom Keliinoi are show in these undated photos.

School board races are often described as “sleepy,” and the race for San Diego Unified Sub-District B did, indeed, start out that way. But a last-minute shakeup during the primary and a pending lawsuit could put it in a much different place come November.

Two weeks before the primary, what was an uncontested race became an actual race when Tom Keliinoi announced his write-in candidacy against two-term incumbent Kevin Beiser.

Because the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, Keliinoi’s 2,763 votes — compared to Beiser’s 36,038 — were enough to get his name on next month’s ballot. Now campaign signs are scattered across the city and donations are rolling in.


RELATED: San Diego Unified Pursuing $3.5 Billion Bond Measure For November

Keliinoi said he chose to run because he wants his grandson to grow up in quality schools. But his candidacy came as a chorus of private citizens, activists and politicians were calling for an end to the status quo on the school board, which brings us to the lawsuit.

Last week, the nonprofit Parents for Quality Education filed a lawsuit to reform school board elections and block this year’s vote until it’s sorted out. A hearing is not yet scheduled and the vote will continue unless a judge says otherwise.

Keliinoi, who got help filing for office from the Republican Party of San Diego County, said he wants to move the board away from the politics that have fueled the reform movement, and just get down to business.

“I’m kind of frustrated, like many, that everything is a partisan issue, and it doesn’t need to be,” he said. “So I avoid those hot-button issues, not because they don’t exist — I’m happy to have a conversation about them — but I’m more interested in solving.”


Keliinoi, who grew up in Hawaii and was a plantation worker before becoming an executive at Qualcomm and co-founding real estate firm San Terra Properties, said he’d use his business acuity to solve problems in the district.

“The way to do that, in my view, is to bring qualified executive business experience that’s proven over time — I have that — with an understanding of how to apply that in an education environment successfully — I have that — and to make tough choices,” said Keliinoi, who is also co-founder and board president of Elevate Charter School.

By tough choices, he means being a tougher negotiator, including with staff unions.

“I’m not a teacher. I don’t belong to the teachers union and I have nothing against it. My father was a steelworker and I was a communications worker. I get it,” he said. “But I’m not running to represent the union, I’m running to represent the district and the students and parents and taxpayers.

“It may not be popular,” he said, “but leave it up to voters to decide whether you want common sense, tough-minded solutions or just business as usual.”

Video: Businessman And Math Teacher Compete For San Diego Unified School Board

Keliinoi criticized an early retirement deal the district gave to hundreds of educators to help trim $124 million from its budget in 2017. A Voice of San Diego report cast doubt on the plan, pointing to a district document that showed it could lose money in the long run.

Keliinoi sympathized that the district is in a tight spot with rising pension payments, which are a major factor in recent budget cuts but are largely out of the district’s control. He said, however, the district can do better to free up some of its general fund.

Beiser, who has been endorsed by the district’s teachers union, pushed back.

“I’ve worked a lot with the other trustees to make sure that we’re balancing our budget responsibly, making sure that we’re cutting at the central office and the district level to protect important programs for students at the schools,” he said.

Beiser argued that the proportion of the budget San Diego Unified spends on personnel is in line with what most districts spend and that it’s spending on educators that has the most impact on students. He also said the district has favorable financial ratings from the San Diego County Office of Education and bond rating agencies.

Beiser, a middle school math teacher, was equally as quick to rattle off the district’s academic ratings. It has the highest graduation rate among large California districts, even after the board raised graduation requirements, and it had the highest academic growth nationwide between 2015 and 2017.

Beiser said that’s the benefit of having a teacher on the school board.

“At the school that I’m at now, in the last two years we’ve worked together to improve our math skills by over 21 percent. In two years. And that’s kind of what I bring,” he said. “I’ve really tried to focus on finding solutions and helping kids improve academically, and I think I have a proven track record of success.”

Moving forward, Beiser said he wants to continue expanding enrichment programs in the district, such as music and arts, maker spaces and robotics teams.

A rumor that Beiser is interested in running for City Council has cast doubt on whether he’ll be around to see that vision through. But Beiser insists it’s just a rumor.

“I’m a teacher on the school board. I love it. I love the work of trying to find solutions to problems,” he said.

Beiser and Keliinoi are running in Sub-District B, which stretches from Scripps Ranch to City Heights. Voters citywide will get to weigh in on the race.

Businessman And Math Teacher Compete For San Diego Unified School Board
Businessman and charter school co-founder Tom Keliinoi is running against teacher and two-term incumbent Kevin Beiser for San Diego School Board.

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