This post has been updated.

“If you don’t care about education, we will make you,” Scott Lewis said in a VOSD podcast back in September.

That might sound like the sort of bold proclamation someone makes when they get carried away by feelings. But here, Scott is nodding to something deeper about how closely we as parents and community members pay attention to what’s happening in our local schools.

Learning Curve-01That is, we all say we value education. But, for whatever reason – maybe due to a lack of understanding, maybe a feeling that their voices won’t be heard – many people care about schools only from a distance. They don’t actively engage school topics through social media. They don’t show up at school board meetings, or vote in school board elections.

Hey, I’m not judging you. But it’s my job to figure out what’s missing. That’s part of the reason I started this column, so I could answer common questions about how schools and districts work.

But if there is a sense of apathy when it comes to schools – more than, say, interest in how our city government works – it would have the most direct impact on school board races. Which might help explain why we have school board members who strolled into their seats unopposed, or why we have a trustee currently under investigation by San Diego’s district attorney who still isn’t facing a serious challenger.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

And with three school board members, Marne Foster, Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans, up for re-election this year, it’s a good time to take a closer look at school board races. You’ll see voter apathy brought up by a couple of candidates who were unsuccessful in their bids.

This question is an amalgam of many several I’ve gotten in the past several months, most of which came in after news about Foster reached a boiling point.

Question: Why is it so difficult to beat an incumbent in a school board race?  

In a commentary for the San Diego Union-Tribune last week, Mark Powell, who unsuccessfully ran against Evans for school board in 2012, explained why he thinks nobody will challenge Foster for a school board seat.

The thrust of his argument comes down to the unusual way San Diego Unified school board races work.

Candidates have to survive two elections. In the June primary, they battle in one of five smaller sub-districts. The top two candidates then advance to the November election, where the entire school district votes. It costs a lot of money to campaign through two elections, which weeds out candidates who don’t have strong financial backing.

Here’s why the system is weird, as we explained in 2010:

No other K-12 school district in San Diego County is elected this way. It is a hybrid of district elections — in which voters in a small slice of a city or school district elect their own representative — and at-large elections in which the whole area votes.

But it was actually the same way that San Diego used to elect its City Council. Even though the city has no power over the school district, schools’ election rules have been laid out in the city charter since 1939.

Voters scrapped that system for City Council 22 years ago, replacing it with district-only elections to ensure that minorities had a better shot at being heard.

But the system stayed the same for the school board — and attracts the same criticisms.

In 2010, a group of parents, philanthropists and community leaders initiated an effort to expand the school board from five to nine members, arguing the move would stabilize and depoliticize the district. But by the following year, that effort fizzled away and the system went unchanged.

What that all means is that school board candidates – no matter how  well-liked or known they are by voters in their corners of San Diego – need to make their case to voters city-wide.

I reached out to Vlad Kogan, a former VOSD reporter who has since become a political science professor at Ohio State University. If there’s a lack of engagement in school board elections, Kogan said, it’s less likely to be an issue of voter apathy, and more about lack of voter knowledge.

School board elections generally don’t attract a lot of candidates. They’re fairly low-profile positions and are not well-paid (San Diego Unified school board members make about $18,000 a year, plus benefits). So you may get some parents and independent candidates, but you’re more likely to see ambitious politicos hoping to use the position as a launch pad.

The low salary is enough to weed out some candidates. But then there’s a general lack of name recognition. And Kogan said this is where candidates really benefit from scoring an endorsement by the teachers union.

Kogan lists three big reasons why the union endorsement is so valuable:

• The endorsement will resonate with teachers, a motivated group that will show up to vote.

• Candidates will benefit from union resources, whether it’s money to pay for signs and fliers or people to canvass.

• And a union endorsement listed on the ballot is a good signal to voters, if they haven’t done a lot of research, that a candidate has been vetted.

The union representing San Diego Unified teachers and counselors has yet to weigh in on upcoming races, but it endorsed both Evans and Foster in their last elections. Barrera ran unopposed in both 2008 and 2012.

Bill Ponder, who challenged Foster in 2012, said school board elections are technically a nonpartisan race, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of running a campaign, and needing resources to do it, the race gets partisan very quickly.

“You have a rigged process that is put into place to support individuals and their interests, and not the interests of kids. In some ways I was naive to think that voters would recognize that, but I was wrong. I didn’t realize how strong those forces are. I didn’t realize they would trump common sense,” he said.

That’s the reason that Ponder said, unequivocally, he has no interest in running against Foster in the upcoming race, though people have approached him to do so.

Amy Redding echoes a lot of what Ponder said. Redding lost to Kevin Beiser in 2014. She was outspent and outmatched. But the one piece that frustrates Redding most about that race is that she had so few opportunities to debate Beiser in public.

The two faced off in a short debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, and another just before the November election. Redding called for more debates, but Beiser didn’t accept the challenge. Why should he have? He already had major endorsements and name recognition. More debates could have benefited Redding by getting her name in front of more voters.

“It’s interesting, because you see public frustration over how the district is run, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t translate to the ballot box,” Redding said. “I don’t know if it’s that people just don’t care about school board races or if people feel defeated against this massive bureaucracy that takes so long to move. I think there’s also a sense that ‘if I just focus on my kids, and get them through the system, that’s all I can hope to control.’”

Redding didn’t let me off the hook completely. She pointed out that the press is important in getting the issues and candidates in front voters. Compared with city council races, press for school board races is lacking.

“I’d just love to see more competitive races,” Redding said. “The more competitive they are, the more press they get, the more people learn about the candidates.”

Ed Reads of the Week

• Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery (The New York Times)

In Detroit schools, helpful students volunteer to smash the cockroaches in the classroom. There are also rats and dripping water.

This story paints a post-apocalyptic scene. “Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse. On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools,” reports the Times.

And if kids attending class in these conditions isn’t enough to convince people something needs to be done, here’s why it matters to the city of Detroit: “Residents wonder how the city can ever recoup its lost population and attract young families if the public schools are in abysmal shape.”

• How A Great Teacher Cultivates Veggies (And Kids) In The Bronx — In 17 Photos (NPR)

If you need a chaser from the doom and gloom, head over to the Bronx, where one teacher (and his class) makes bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.

This is a great profile of a quirky teacher whose classroom has more plants than desks. One student referred to him as Father Nature. An NPR reporter said that calling him “a science teacher” is like saying fire is hot. Wonderful to remember teachers like this exist.

• Learning as a Science (American RadioWorks)

If you read last week’s Learning Curve, you’ll remember I looked at the widespread misconception that students learn most effectively in one specific style – through sight, sound or touch. It was good timing.

This podcast, which came out the following day, looks at learning styles and other ideas teachers hold dear, but aren’t supported by evidence.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the number of school board trustees up for re-election in 2016. We’ve updated the post to include Richard Barrera.

    This article relates to: Corrections, Education, Must Reads, School Leadership, The Learning Curve

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    bcat subscriber

    Getting good candidates for the election and getting the electorate inspired to care are tough problems to solve.

    I'd love to see the citizens be able to vote for all of the Trustees rather than the "representative" system we have today.  The Trustees are not responsive to the citizens.  I've tried to make appointments and discuss issues.  Those outside my sub-district don't want to listen.  They hide behind the fact that they are not representing me.  My representatives have not been politically savvy enough to horse-trade to get what I want / need for my area of San Diego.  In addition, my representative claims that they don't have enough resources (time / salary / staff) to respond to all the input that they receive.

    There are a few changes I'd like to see:

    1.  Keep reporting on these issues.  The public and parents need to know that their only voice in changing SDUSD is through the Board of Education or through creating Charter Schools.

    2.  Elections should be more frequent.  Re-elect every year.  Shortening the time span of re-election makes the House of Representatives more responsive to voters than the Senate.

    3.  Make elections city-wide.  All candidates should have to convince the whole city that they should represent us in elections.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    { I think there’s also a sense that ‘if I just focus on my kids, and get them through the system, that’s all I can hope to control.’” } = this is the fundamental problem, each person is only out for themselves. Those who think like that are only worried about their short-term self-interest, it's irrational.

    We have five basic interest groups in Public Education: The Students, The Parents, The Teachers, The Administration, and The Public (i.e. Business people)

    The Students are why we have public education, but they aren't able to make their own decisions until the last couple of years they are in school, and that's presuming the schools are actually capable of educating them.

    The Parents are responsible parties, because it's their fault the students exist, but they are also a product of the previous generation of students in public education. So, although they are responsible, they can't be held fully accountable, for they only have the education that they were given the opportunity to earn.

    The Teachers are one of the two groups that actually get PAID to be here. After the parents, they have the most direct influence over the quality of education that students receive, and it is literally their job. They get great job security, excellent pay, and the power to change lives. They should be the most accountable people in the system.

    The Administrators are also getting paid to be here, and they should be held accountable, but they are unnecessary. The Teaches could run the schools, just take shifts as Principle, or Councilors, and get advanced training. The Administration should only be promoted from the ranks of teachers, by teachers, and they should be about 1/10th of the staff, not 1/2, and not three layers deep. They all need to be eliminated because they are redundant.

    The Public, is really everyone who doesn't have kids in the system, but pays for the system. Mostly it's the rich, as Property Taxes are what pay for schools, and the people who own 90% of the property are the rich. Businesses need educated employees, so they have to pay for public schools, but they want to pay the minimum, and get employees that can think, just not think for themselves. The Business People are afraid that the smart young people will compete for their jobs, so they keep Public Schools weak, only using them to brainwash employees into the capitalist system, so that they can get the value of labor from employees, without too much trouble. There are other tax-payers (property owners) but most have kids at some point, so they are part of the problem.

    We need to stop educating kids to become employees, and start educating them to become leaders: See

    bcat subscriber

    @Michael Russell 

    The most powerful point you make is that education is not about a "smarter workforce".  We DON'T teach trade skills for good reason.  They can limit your value (as your trade vanishes in a changing economy) and trade skills are not the foundations of a democracy.

    I think public education should be focused on creating good citizens (voters) and a workforce that is sufficiently educated to make good decisions to learn the skills for their chosen profession and make good decisions for their health (cutting down on public assistance for their healthcare in old age) and good decisions for their retirement (e.g. saving money rather than planning to live off of Social Security).

    The Public and Parents are in an adversarial role with administrators and teachers.  The Public should want an informed electorate that makes good decisions for the nation and a strong economic workforce that can provide an economy that can support public services (i.e. tax revenue for military, infrastructure, and public services).  The Parents want children that are able to support themselves and be happy.

    Teachers have chosen a profession to help the Public / Parents / Students reach these goals.  However, their need for a salary, good working conditions, and career advancement are in conflict with the goals of the Public / Parents / Students.

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    Talk to Fran Zimmerman about how much some people care about school board elections.

    David subscriber

    Wait until the February 11 filling date. I hear there will be very fortifiable candidates running against most of the incumbent candidates. 

    bcat subscriber


    I hope so, but history says otherwise.  McQuarrie and Barrera ran unopposed.  Incumbents won the last few election cycles.

    ScrippsDad subscriber

    @bcat @David  I know this system very well. I ran in 2010 and because we had three candidates in our District, we had to spend and campaign hard in the primary. As noted, only the top 2 get to advance to the citywide general election.

    Kevin and I advanced and the incumbent was defeated. I had to spend a lot of money to defeat the incumbent as a dark horse in the primary. Then, we moved from the specific district to city-wide. The cost to somebody like me, who was not endorsed or funded by "labor" and had to fund their campaign virtually entirely by themselves: dialing for dollars and personal wealth (or lack thereof) was huge and still small compared to the endorsed candidates war chest. I just could not reach with frequency the numbers of voters that I needed to.

    In the end, I learned that for the most part, it was not about the issues but the sound bite, money, and the fact that most voters believe that someone who is/was a "teacher" (and this is not a diss to Kevin, just a historical reality) is the best qualified to sit on the Board..

    Now for me, it has actually worked out well and having lost the election has allowed me to pursue my agenda outside of the Brown Act and the public bickering and brokering. My contacts and connections made during the campaign have given me many opportunities to advocate for children and public education while involving and engaging the community, parents, teachers, business leaders, community leaders, students and yes, other Board members including Kevin who beat me; that I otherwise would not have had.

    But that's just me working hard to stay involved and pursuing my passion for education and advocacy for kids.

    Personally, this system is broken and does not allow somebody like me (a parent who maintains objectivity and allegiance to no special interest group) to compete on an equal playing field and allow the best candidate to win. It provides the opportunity for those with the most money (usually coming from endorsements) to operate at a distinct advantage.

    My two-bits... And yes, my information also says that there will likely not be unopposed elections. Qualified candidates are coming. Then, we shall see as we listen, learn and follow the money.

    bcat subscriber

    @ScrippsDad @bcat @David 

    Sorry to hear the race took so much out of you.  In another generation, it seemed that citizens could serve the public and go back to their private lives after serving.  That does not seem to be the case now, in San Diego.  In other parts of the country it may yet be the case.

    I'm frustrated that without running for office, I don't seem to be able to make a difference.  It seems that as you said, you need to follow the money.  The BoE controls the SDUSD Legal Counsel and the Superintendent.  Therefore, staffers don't need to listen to the public.

    For the most part, the BoE doesn't need to listen to the public.  This BoE has eliminated the Budget Book (transparency in financial accounting across the district), sold off property, increased class sizes, and eliminated programs (including GATE).

    I don't understand how to volunteer to make a difference.