The Learning Curve: The School Board Is Studying — But Doesn't Have to Accept — Election Reforms

Education

The Learning Curve: The School Board Is Studying — But Doesn't Have to Accept — Election Reforms

Here’s a rundown of the various changes to the election process the San Diego Unified school board is considering. Plus: a Supreme Court case could impact the local teachers union, and San Diego Unified claims bragging rights on test score improvements.

San Diego Unified board members discuss special education. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Frustrated with a school board election process they felt disenfranchised voters, citizens in January brought to the San Diego City Council four separate proposals that would revamp San Diego Unified’s election process.

Despite the fact the City Council has no authority over the school district, the school board election process falls under the purview of the city charter. So any change to the process would require a vote of the people — either through a ballot measure or a vote put up by the city.

The City Council, however, was reluctant to get involved and shot down all four proposals. They punted the issue back to the school district and advised them to come up with recommendations for how to proceed.

Since then, San Diego Unified school board established a 24-member committee made up of parents, students and union representatives to recommendations on election reforms.

Here’s how I described the school district’s elections process in January:

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.

Last May, the San Diego County Grand Jury recommended school board candidates be elected only from within their home sub-district, the same way City Council members, state Assembly and Senate members and congressional representatives are elected.

The district is now hosting a series of townhall meetings so the public can weigh in on some of the changes under consideration. The first of those meetings happened Wednesday at Mira Mesa High School.

Among the possible changes is whether to remove the school board elections from the city charter all together. San Diego Unified is one of only seven school districts in the state whose elections are governed by a city charter. The elections for every other K-12 district in the county fall under the jurisdiction of the county superintendent of schools.

It’s not entirely clear how the new election process would look should the election process be removed from the city charter, but at a City Council rules committee meeting this week, City Attorney Mara Elliott said she’s working on a memo that would clarify the process.

Here are changes under consideration, along with some context and some of the pros and cons discussed during Wednesday’s town hall:

Term Limits

Currently there are no term limits for San Diego Unified board members. Trustees Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans are both serving their third terms, and Kevin Beiser is running unopposed for his third term. The longest-serving school board member, though, was John de Beck, who served five terms over 20 years.

Those who want to keep the current system argue that serving as school board member involves a steep learning curve, so long-serving board members bring stability and institutional knowledge.

The other side argues that imposing term limits would allow for fresh ideas and improve the democratic process, because incumbents usually have a significant advantage during elections.

According to the school board committee, incumbents in San Diego Unified won five times more elections than their challengers over the past 30 years.

District-Only Elections

Most of the largest school districts in California, and the vast majority in San Diego County, use district-only elections to elect trustees.

The Grand Jury and those who want to see this change in San Diego Unified say district-only elections would allow for trustees who are selected by, and accountable to, the voters they represent. In a joint op-ed last year, Barrera and Beiser argued the opposite and said under the current system, trustees have an electoral incentive to represent all neighborhoods.

Some parents on Wednesday pointed to the 2016 election. LaShae Collins beat current trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne by a sizable margin during the district-only primary but lost the general election.

More Sub-Districts

The district is more than twice the size it was in 1935, when it established five trustees. Back then, there were about 4,100 students per trustee, according to the committee. Today there are 26,000 students per trustee.

Increasing the number of trustees by two might allow each to spend more time on constituents and schools in their areas. Six of the 10 largest school districts in California have seven trustees.

Adding trustees could also allow for deeper discussion and more debate on the school board, which could be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

About seven years ago, a group of community members and business leaders brought forward a plan to remake the school board and add members, but the group didn’t gather enough signatures to get the plan on the ballot.

Who’s Eligible to Vote

Sixteen-year-olds are of course impacted by school board policies, so on one hand, it makes sense to give them a voice in elections. But more than a few adults last night questioned whether teenagers would simply be manipulated by their teachers or whether they’d know enough about issues to make an informed decision. (You could probably make the latter argument for adults, though, too).

As a matter of law, according to the committee, 16-year-olds and undocumented residents can vote in some local elections (but not federal or state elections) across the country.

Full-Time Salaries for School Board Members

One common argument for why it’s so difficult to find willing school board candidates is the low pay it offers. At $18,000 a year plus health benefits, being on the San Diego Unified school board doesn’t exactly provide a living wage, so the candidate pool is narrowed to retirees or those whose jobs have tremendous flexibility.

Increasing the school board salary could be one way to increase the candidate pool. In many cities, school board trustees earn no salary at all. School board trustees in Los Angeles Unified, however, earn an annual salary of $125,000 and are allocated paid staffers.

It’s important to remember the 24-member committee looking into election reforms is only an advisory group. That means the school board is under no obligation to accept whatever recommendations it comes up with.

Suzy Reid, a writer and researcher on the committee, said she’s served on a number of advisory committees over the years and it’s always “defeating” when recommendations are disregarded, but some of that is par for the course.

She said she’s serving on the current committee because she’s tired of seeing the school board seat in her area, currently represented by Mike McQuary, go unopposed.

“If anything comes of this, even if there are no changes to the school board, at least the public will be better informed about the process,” she said.

Jeff Bennett, a National Guardsman who’s also on the committee, said he’s not too worried the recommendations will be dismissed, because the committee will produce a report that will be available for public consumption.

“Even if they don’t follow our recommendations,” Bennett said, “at least they can take that report and go to the City Council with it.”

The school board is expected to return to the City Council with its recommendations by June.

♦♦♦

Bragging Rights for San Diego Unified

San Diego Unified landed in the national spotlight for positive news this week for being the only large urban school district to improve math and reading test scores among fourth and eighth grade students.

For the first time, district scores exceeded the national average (by a point) on the so-called Nation’s Report Card, which allows for state-to-state comparisons. The district’s six-point increase in reading scores is considered unusually large, EdSource reported. A decade ago, it was 12 points below the national average. California as whole still fell below the national average for reading and math, but has improved.

Experts caution against attributing the scores to any particular policies, because a variety of variables come into play. Superintendent Cindy Marten, however, said the results “underscore the incredible teaching and learning that’s occurring in San Diego Unified schools every day.”

Court Case Could Hit San Diego Particularly Hard

Within the next three months, the Supreme Court will issue a ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which is expected to end “agency fees” and strip unions of much of their financing and power.

The case has been fueling anxiety among teachers across the country and was mentioned by the San Diego Education Association in its successful campaign for a new contract.

In an LA School Report commentary, one writer was skeptical of predictions that the court case will “crush” or “decimate” public unions in most places — with the exception of Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, which each have a higher-than-average percentage of members who pay fees.

“Fee-payers comprise about 11.8 percent of the United Teachers Los Angeles bargaining unit. For the San Diego Education Association it’s about 8.2 percent. For both of these locals, the loss of representation fees will have an immediate and significant impact on their budgets,” he writes.

ICYMI …

Two San Diegans with ties to Lincoln High School made a recent trip to D.C., where they met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discuss the impact of Obama-era discipline policies, which called on schools to reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates.

Nicole Stewart, a former vice principal at Lincoln, and Eileen Sofa, whose son was the victim of a suspected rape at the school, met with DeVos to help inform her work on a new Federal Commission on School Safety, as the education secretary considers rolling back the federal guidance issued in 2014.

Stewart has since been quoted or referenced by outlets across the country, including the New York Times, The Weekly Standard and even the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education.

Stewart said she was motivated to speak out after a former Lincoln teacher and one of her friends, Nathan Page, committed suicide last year. She attributes his death to the treatment he endured at Lincoln High.

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