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The Learning Curve: San Diego Unified Democrats Kill Election Reforms — for Now

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to finish funding the Local Control Funding Formula two years ahead of schedule, a new study suggests charter schools are siphoning resources, and more in our biweekly roundup of education news. 

A meeting of the San Diego Unified school board / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

On Wednesday, the San Diego City Council’s rules committee shot down four separate ballot proposals to reform San Diego Unified school board elections. Each proposal failed 3-2 along party lines, with Democrats voting in the majority.

The reforms included proposals to add more members to the five-person school board, set a two-term limit for trustees, split San Diego Unified into two separate districts, and eliminate at-large elections so that trustees are elected only by members of their districts.

Unlike the way City Council elections work — where only the people who live in a certain district vote for that district’s representative — school board candidates first run in a districtwide election, then go on to a citywide runoff. Reformers argue that district-only elections would make it easier to see fresh faces on the school board, as city-wide elections are costly and tilt toward candidates with endorsements and financial backing from labor unions and other special interests.

The citizens who brought forward the proposals have until June to try again. If approved, a proposal would go to the full City Council, which could then place it on the November ballot.

Because of the odd relationship between San Diego and its school district — wherein the city has no oversight role, but holds school district elections under its purview — any change to the school district’s election process requires an amendment to the City Charter.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the rules committee expressed support for surveys and town hall meetings to gauge community members’ interest in school board reforms.

School board trustees Sharon Whitehurst-Payne and Richard Barrera have taken the lead on that effort. They’ve held two invite-only meetings with community members to talk about engagement.

Some district parents expressed concern over the fact Barrera is leading the effort because he’s openly opposed district-only elections. In an op-ed for the Union-Tribune last year, Barrera and his school board colleague Kevin Beiser dismissed a proposal to institute district-only elections and term limits as a Republican ploy to grab power. Barrera has been elected to school board three times, each time running unopposed.

“I’m frustrated because it’s clear to me school board members don’t want change,” San Diego Unified parent Tamara Hurley told the rules committee this week. She believes the plan the school district brought forward is a way to stall changes.

“They have every incentive to do so,” Hurley said.

Under the plan the school board approved this week, the district will create a 24-member committee — made up mostly of parents and union representatives — to advise the school board and make recommendations on election reforms. Each school board member would also select three representatives to serve on the committee.

Between now and May, the district is expected to organize town hall meetings and send out surveys to parents seeking consensus on a range of questions, like whether there should be term limits, district-only elections and an increase to the number of school board members. The committee will also consider whether 16-year-olds and undocumented residents should be allowed to vote in school board elections.

In June, the district plans to return to the City Council with potential recommendations for a ballot initiative.

At this week’s school board meeting, all five trustees voted in support of the plan to engage parents, though none expressed enthusiasm for making specific changes to the school board or the election process.

Trustee John Lee Evans called changes to the school board election process “a solution in search of a problem.”

Problems, however, have been identified by the San Diego County Grand Jury, which filed a report in May.

“The Grand Jury believes that sub-district elections alone would assure that specific concerns of each region are represented,” the report reads. “Therefore, the Grand Jury recommends that all SDUSD school board trustee candidates be elected only from within their home sub-district.”

The report also recommends instituting term limits, pointing out board members in the past have served as long as 16 years.

In response to the report, the City Council agreed with a number of the Grand Jury’s findings, including the points that term limits enable more citizens to take part in school governance and that by instituting sub-district only elections and term limits, “a large part of the elections process will be returned to the people.”

Former San Diego Unified Trustee Mitz Lee, who’s been involved with Community Voices for Education, a grassroots group, said she fully expected City Council Democrats to side with the school district this week and shoot down the proposed ballot initiatives. But she still considers this week’s results a victory.

“The goal was simply to put this on the City Council’s radar,” she said. “We’ll be back with these proposals and we want to make sure Democrats will be uncomfortable shooting the proposals down again in June.”

In other news…

• On his way out of office, Governor Jerry Brown is eyes a spending spree. (EdSource)

The spending proposals include, among others, $3 billion to finish funding the Local Control Funding Formula two years ahead of schedule, $55 million in ongoing funding for county offices of education to assist local school districts, and $100 million in one-time funding to recruit and train special education teachers in an effort to reverse a critical shortage.

While Brown’s landmark Local Control Funding Formula was welcomed enthusiastically by educators and school district officials, many say the base-funding for operating expenses has remained too low. What happens after next year, post-full funding, will be up to the next governor and Legislatures, write EdSource.

• The cost of charter schools: There’s a study for that. (Chalkbeat)

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, have been growing, both locally and nationally. Charter schools serve roughly 20 percent of the students in San Diego Unified and provide parents an alternative to their neighborhood schools.

But those who oppose them believe charter schools siphon students and resources from district schools, which struggle to reduce operating costs at the same rate they lose students. A new study found officials at one school district in North Carolina had $500 to $700 less to spend on each of its remaining students because 15 percent of local students attended charter schools in the 2013-14 school year.

The story includes an important caveat: “This kind of research is tricky, because it requires complicated judgments about which district costs are fixed and which are variable — and most aren’t clearly one or the other. For instance, although the new North Carolina study categorizes buildings and school administration as ‘fixed,’ districts could reduce both by closing schools.”

• The way a school district draws school boundaries can either improve or exacerbate segregation. (Vox)

The way San Diego Unified School District draws neighborhood school boundaries basically recreates the already existing segregation patterns in San Diego — a concern that’s especially relevant given San Diego Unified’s efforts to keep more kids in their neighborhood schools.

This story comes with an interactive data set that allows you to see how school attendance boundaries impact segregation in your school district.

• San Diego dreamer lands a “small victory” and promises to keep fighting while a UCSD student makes a wrong turn and winds up in ICE custody

Local immigration attorney and DACA recipient Dulce Garcia landed what she saw as a blow to the president on Tuesday when a judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration from stopping a program that protected young unauthorized immigrants like her from deportation.

“After merging five cases, including Garcia’s, that sued the Trump administration over the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Judge William Alsup ordered the administration to renew the two-year permits that allow hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to work in the U.S. without fear of deportation while the combined case proceeds to trial,” writes the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Meanwhile, local UCSD student Orr Yakobi learned just how fragile those DACA protections are when he and his roomate made a wrong turn while shopping near the border and inadvertently entered Mexico.

Orr is an Israeli citizen with DACA status, but those protections do not allow him to leave and reenter the country. Orr is now in ICE custody and detained in Otay Mesa, where he faces deportation. Local lawmakers and others are calling for his release.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera has opposed term-limits. He has opposed district-only elections.

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