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City Council Still Reluctant to Take Up School Board Election Process

The City Council already rejected a proposal earlier this year to reform local school board elections, but was forced to discuss the issue again this week thanks to a Grand Jury report on San Diego Unified’s board election process.

The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Since I started covering education, I’ve been hearing a lot about school board elections. At nearly every meeting or forum I’ve attended, someone has raised questions of how school board elections impact districts and specifically, there’s been a lot of talk about a May San Diego County Grand Jury report recommending that San Diego Unified change the way its trustees are elected.

We last wrote about school board elections, there’s been a couple of attempts to reform the process.

The Learning CurveThis week the City Council’s rules committee took up the matter for a second time this year.

Under existing rules, school board hopefuls first face off in the sub-district they would represent. Then the top two vote-getters, regardless of whether either got a majority of the vote, advance to a districtwide election. Board members don’t currently have term limits.

And strangely enough, while the City Council has no control the district, the district’s election rules have been controlled by provisions of the San Diego City Charter since 1939 – meaning that to reform district elections, the city charter needs to be changed. All changes and amendments to the city charter need to go to the ballot.

In March, the City Council rejected a proposal to impose term limits and switch from districtwide to sub-district general elections. But under state rules, the city has to address the Grand Jury’s findings, saying whether it agrees and giving a status update on the implementation of any of the findings.

The County Grand Jury is made up of citizens nominated by Superior Court judges to investigate and evaluate governmental programs and public agencies throughout the county, its cities and special districts, like water districts. The body took up San Diego Unified’s board elections after receiving complaints about the process.

The Grand Jury had three recommendations:

• Consider placing a measure on a future ballot allowing voters to decide if they want to amend the city charter to change the elections to sub-district only in both the primary and general elections;

• Consider placing a measure on the ballot to allow voters to decide if a candidate who receives a majority of the vote in the primary election be elected outright; and

• Allow voters to decide if trustees should have term limits, which would be another amendment to the city charter.

The report said general elections by sub-district – meaning only the voters living in the geographic area represented by a school board official weigh in, instead of voters citywide – would help ensure sub-district concerns are better represented. Under the current process, a candidate could receive more votes than another candidate in the sub-district he or she would represent, and still lose thanks to voters in other parts of the city. In November’s school board election for the seat representing southeastern San Diego, for example, the candidate who overwhelmingly won the sub-district primary, LaShae Collins, was defeated in the general districtwide election. In the primary, Collins won nearly 60 percent of the vote in her sub-district over now-Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, but Whitehurst-Payne won the general with nearly 55 percent of the vote.

Running in a citywide election also requires more campaigning and more financing, which can leave the elections more vulnerable to special interests, the report said.

The report cited the San Marcos Unified School District, which is in the process of switching from an at-large election process to sub-district elections after it was sued over its election process. The lawsuit argued that the current election system would disadvantage Latino voters and candidates, a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. In 2018, board members will be selected only by voters who live in the sub-district they represent. The Grand Jury also said the lack of term limits “does not effectively serve the district’s students.”

The city’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst laid out the Grand Jury findings and its proposed responses. While it agreed that the school board election process doesn’t always result in board members who reflect the diversity of the district’s population, it disagreed or partially disagreed on the other points.

The responses will move forward to the full City Council, but the process of responding to the report is separate from any future Council decision to put something on the ballot to change the San Diego Unified election process.

The meeting made clear that some Council members are uncomfortable with the idea of intervening in how school board elections are conducted.

Councilman Chris Cate pointed to the roughly $1 million ratepayers citywide are paying in light of water testing being done across the district as a reason why the city has a place to intervene.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry, on the other hand, said it’s “not our business” to determine how school board elections are conducted.

Local Ed News

I’ve been trying to make a habit of going to San Diego Unified board meetings every week and, boy, was this week’s intense.

Sex ed and an anti-bullying policy to support the district’s Muslim students were all on table and brought out lots of emotional speakers. While school board President Richard Barrera was giving an impassioned speech about looking out for the district’s Muslim students in light of increasingly hateful rhetoric around the country, a small group of individuals in the audience – most of whom were seated right behind me– shouted, “Criminals,” “obey the law” and “honor the Constitution.” The same people booed speakers who supported the district’s initiative and called some of the Muslim speakers “terrorists,” though they never went up the podium for public comment. The district has been sued by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, which alleges the policy violates the Constitution by singling out Muslim students for protection. The policy was broadened from its original proposal Tuesday to include all groups.

The board also voted on a new e-mail retention policy, which we have some big concerns about.

A court also upheld a decision that found a Fallbrook school district employee was rightfully awarded more than $1 million for being fired after refusing to delete old e-mails from the district’s server.

My fellow VOSDer Ashly McGlone and I have been doing a lot of school facilities reporting this week. I looked at upgrades that went way over budget and past deadline at Encanto Elementary, and McGlone looked at the plans to rebuild Memorial Prep, which is moving forward on a delayed timeline and at a larger scale.

In other local education news:

• Bell Middle School teacher Shane Parmely was detained by Border Patrol after refusing to answer questions about her citizenship at a checkpoint in New Mexico. (Union-Tribune)

• Comic-Con had some cool-sounding sessions on how to use comics to help teach kids. (KPBS)

• Scripps Ranch parents are seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages after the Advanced Placement exam debacle. (Union-Tribune)

Ed News Roundup

• A Seattle Times investigation found that over the past four years, the number of Seattle high school football and basketball players classified as homeless has soared 163 percent – double the growth in homeless high school students overall.

• “Who is Betsy DeVos? And how did she get to be head of our schools?” asks New York magazine in a profile of the secretary of education.

• This Oklahoma third-grade teacher is panhandling to buy school supplies for her classroom. (The Washington Post)

• Chalkbeat lays out the debate and research over school vouchers.

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