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The way that San Diego Unified elects and treats its school
board members is under the microscope this year. Here is how the
curious system works.
When Stephen Rosen squeaked into second place in the school board race this June, he only had to win over voters in a small district that stretches from Scripps Ranch to City Heights. The businessman and dad bought magnetic signs, spoke up at debates and cut his raucous hair, trading his Jerry Garcia look for something more staid.
But now Rosen is gearing up for a much bigger campaign, a general election battle that spans the entire San Diego Unified school district. He loaned himself $90,000 to get through the race. He stopped coaching Little League to free up time.
“I am overwhelmed,” Rosen said. “Running the campaign is virtually a full-time job.”
And all this for a supposedly part-time job that pays just $18,000 a year. It is a tough race for a tough job that has gotten even tougher as schools battle budget cuts handed down by the state.
“You spend maybe 30 hours a week for what is essentially a poverty wage,” said consultant Bob Nelson. “I try to talk people out of it. I think it’s a lousy job.”
The unusual way that San Diego Unified elects and treats its school board members is under the microscope this year. A school board member who is suing to stay in the race argues that the June elections disenfranchise the majority. On the flip side, civil rights activists believe that having the November election open to the whole district dilutes the voice of blacks, Latinos and other minorities.
And a new group of critics who complain about the revolving door of school superintendents argues that the school board is too small, making it too vulnerable to wild swings in direction.
Here is how the unusual system works: Candidates like Rosen and his opponents have to survive two elections. In the June primary, they battle in one of five smaller subdistricts. The top two candidates then advance to the November election, where the entire school district votes.
The system might seem strange: 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.
Because school board candidates ultimately have to win over the entire city, some political consultants say it is too hard for grassroots candidates to succeed. School board contenders must make their case to nearly 500,000 registered voters this fall; City Council wannabes have only 50,000 to 100,000.
Just reaching out a few times to the most frequent voters would cost $250,000, said political consultant Chris Crotty. Chasing down votes citywide makes school board candidates more likely to depend on big groups like political parties, business coalitions, or labor unions that can fund campaigns.
The vast majority of California school boards are elected by the whole school district. But that could change across the state, as a San Francisco law firm has threatened to sue school districts where the minority vote is drowned out. Vista Unified is going to change its system; Lemon Grove and Lakeside districts may do so too.
Katherine Nakamura, a school board member who was knocked out of the race in the June primary, argues that the system actually disenfranchises the majority of voters, not the minority. People who live in other parts of the school district had no chance to vote for her at all in the primary election that she finished third in, she contends in a lawsuit.
And the election system doesn’t account for the fact that children are often bused across town, making families more invested in schools far away than schools in their neighborhood, Nakamura argues. She has sued to be allowed to enter November’s general election as a write-in candidate.
Another camp believes that the whole system is too unstable.
San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a group that includes philanthropists, business leaders and parents, argues that the existing school board system is outdated and blames it for the revolving door of superintendents that San Diego Unified has suffered in recent years.
Organizer Scott Himelstein says a small school board with five members can swing too easily in a single election, changing the whole direction of the school district in a snap. His group has quietly discussed the idea of adding four new, appointed members to the board.
Most school boards in California have five members, but almost all of the large school districts elsewhere in the country have larger boards with seven or nine trustees.
And while most school boards are elected, some cities have stripped school boards of most of their power, putting school systems under mayoral control instead.
Brown University education Professor Kenneth Wong argues that mayoral control is smoother because a single person — the mayor — is in charge and can be held accountable if schools falter.
Researchers disagree on whether putting the mayor in charge is a reliable way to fix school districts. And mayoral control faces bigger obstacles in California, where the state constitution prohibits it.
“There is no magical way to get political stability and end political infighting,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “And there is no connection at all with academic achievement.”
If a candidate survives the two elections and makes it onto the school board, their next challenge is surviving on a budget.
School board members here are paid $18,000 a year under state law. While California does allow for annual raises over that limit, San Diego Unified has not doled them out.
The low pay can deter some candidates from running at all.
City Council members, in contrast, make roughly $75,000 annually for a full-time job. John Stump, an attorney who sits on a school district oversight committee for school renovation money, has repeatedly tried to convince city officials to remake the school board in the image of the City Council, including full-time salaries. School board members have no staffers and their single policy analyst was cut years ago.
“People of goodwill shouldn’t have to make a charitable contribution to participate on the school board,” Stump said.
The paltry salaries are one result of turn-of-the-century reforms that were meant to diminish the role of school boards, said Mike Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. Progressive reformers in the early 1900s believed that a professionally trained superintendent should handle operations, especially hiring and contracts, to cut down on graft.
That same idea runs through modern trainings that urge school board members to back off and let the superintendent take charge, something that San Diego Unified has repeatedly tried. Former Superintendent Carl Cohn even put a “no meddling” clause in his contract.
Yet school board members rarely treat it as a part-time job. The school board is sometimes booked almost all day with meetings, often on complex issues that require extensive research beforehand.
School board member Shelia Jackson dismissed the idea that being on the school board is — or should be — a part-time job.
“People elected me to the board to make sure their schools were safe and to advocate for their families,” she said.