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The firebrand of the school board says he’s relieved to fade out of the public eye. An outspoken voice for accountability and reining in spending, Barnett says, “I give myself an A for effort, and a D+ for success.”
For four years, Scott Barnett kick-started vigorous debates about how San Diego Unified spent and managed money, and was often on the losing end of votes. But he got a lovefest of a farewell from fellow board members last week.
They praised his leadership in helping to pass school bonds and forcing the district get a grip on its spending.
“You’ve made a huge impact in this community and this district,” said trustee Richard Barrera.
“You’ve taught me to be a better leader and a better educator here in San Diego,” Superintendent Cindy Marten told him.
On top of the praise, the board unanimously passed some joint-use projects Barnett had shepherded for years – agreements with the Little Italy Association for Amici Park and swimming pools with the YMCA. Both plans will use nonprofits’ funding to improve and build on school properties that will serve students and the larger communities.
Barnett said he’s relieved to be stepping off the dais and looks forward to getting his life back. Barnett said the timing is right for him to leave public service – and said he doesn’t have any plans to run for office again.
“I’d rather be boiled in hot oil than be on the City Council,” he told me.
Those are the kind of Barnett-isms – vivid, honest, vaguely offensive – that’ll be missing from school board meetings from now on. Barnett spoke with me this week to reflect on his tenure just before his successor, Dr. Mike McQuary, was sworn in.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get your start in public service? You ran for public office at a very young age. What gave you the idea to do that? Were you involved in student government before that?
My mother, when I grew up in New York, was involved in the New York State League of Women Voters. In fact, she was the president of the state league. This was during the whole civil rights era. We had a second phone in our house, the red phone, her league phone. No one had two phones back in the mid-’60s. I grew up with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, that was the milieu and paradigm I grew up in. Mom was very active politically and in social issues.
I ran for class president when I was in fourth grade and I lost by one vote. My campaign manager said he voted against me because he voted for this girl he liked better. Then, I did not run for office until I was 21 and I was living in Del Mar. I ran for the Del Mar City Council. I was elected at age 21 by 25 votes, in 1984. That was my first elected office and afterward, I swore it would be my last ever elected office. I guess a quarter century made me have amnesia.
When my kids were in elementary school, I got involved in the PTA at Doyle Elementary. My journey with San Diego Unified started 14 or 15 years ago, with my children starting kindergarten and will end this coming June when my youngest graduates high school from University City High School.
Basically, my mother really instilled the role model of being involved in the community, in civic affairs, in political and governmental issues. I think more than anything, what she did as well was instill a nonpartisan approach to solving issues based on the data and the facts, as opposed to ideology. … She was my campaign manager when I was elected to the Del Mar City Council, was my No. 1 political adviser and did all my campaign materials because she was a graphic artist back then. She was my long-time business associate and partner and did a lot of work for me in politics all those years.
Were you always outspoken and independent or did you grow into the role of watchdog?
I think there’s two things: No. 1, you can take the boy out of New York, but can’t take the New York out of the boy. New Yorkers tend to say what they mean and mean what they say. …. I think I’ve always been fairly direct in my public discourse. With friends and colleagues, I can be more diplomatic at times. …
I guess I’ve always been pretty direct. Some people find it offensive. San Diegans by nature are not that way, and certainly in the public discourse by nature, are not that way.
Is running TaxpayersAdvocate.org still your primary business?
It has been, however, last year was probably the worst income I’ve earned in 10 years, which is one of the major factors in persuading me not to run again. I do like to eat and pay bills, and I do have children and a dog and several bartenders to support. So, I am looking at getting into different deals now.
We both know many smart parents who are very involved in the schools. These are the people who have the most at stake – parents of current students. Why don’t more of them put themselves out there and run for school board?
You said it at the beginning, because they are smart. I think most parents’ primary objective is on their kids’ education, their teacher, their classroom, their P.E. coach, their homework, and that’s where we spend the bulk of our focus, time and energy. …. To make that leap, and say, “I see these issues or challenges or problems or dysfunctions at my kids’ schools, therefore I want to go fix the system,” is a huge leap. …
Over the years, I’ve found, people run for office for a couple of reasons. Most of them run for some personal reason, either they get miffed at something in the system, either there’s some neighborhood development issue and they run for City Council or there’s some situation in a local small school board that really pisses them off and they want to fix it. That’s one side of the personal reason. The other side is wanting to be an “important person,” an elected official, and it’s an insecurity and narcissism. Then there are those who want to improve their community through the schools. And, there are those who want to run for office as a career and it is a stepping stone to run for something else. Or they get recruited by someone, or some organization – the union, or the business community.
What was it that made you run? It doesn’t seem like it was a stepping stone.
As a parent, it seems like every week you see something at the school district and think, “Why do they do it this way?” You put that along with my theoretical ability and my desire to think it can be run better, managed better, structured better, I considered running. Also, during Proposition S in 2008, which was the second school bond, I was a political consultant to help get that measure passed. At that time, I met Richard Barrera, who was running for office for the first time and he didn’t have opponent. I worked very closely with Richard during that and he encouraged me in 2010 to run against Mr. (John) de Beck. All those things conspired together for me to decide to run for school board.
If you were giving advice to someone who might think of running for school board, is it worth the trouble? Do you get more love than hate?
You don’t get true love. Every time you make a decision, you piss somebody off. If you enjoy ceremony, there’s a lot of opportunity to participate in ceremony as an elected official: ribbon cuttings, parades, events. I could go to a function every single night of the week and every day of the weekend, that I could be recognized as “the honorable is here.” If you want that, then you could have that. To me, it’s like cotton candy, it’s not real, it’s not the same as respect.
To me, the reasons to run vary by the person, anyone who does run for this school board should recognize the incredible amount of time that is required if you actually want to do to get something done, as opposed to just being a potted plant. … Part of that time involvement is the inherent dysfunction in the system and part of it is we’re so bloody big and we have so many people with so many wants and needs and demands, parents and their students and employees. …
I had very high ambitions and expectations and therefore for the most part, have been unsuccessful in what I wanted to do and what I actually did do on the board. I give myself an A for effort, and a D+ for success. That was my own bloody fault, I could have had different goals for myself and what I wanted to do and then had met the successes that I wanted. I’m not saying I didn’t get anything done, I got a lot done, but it’s not what I wanted ultimately to get done and accomplish.
What are those things you had hoped to accomplish?
I had greater hope that what I wanted to do would get done. To a large degree, that meant convincing at least two other colleagues, to do what I thought was best and convincing them to not do what I didn’t think was best. For the most part, on these large, structural, financial issues, I was unsuccessful. The overall dysfunction in the system, and the overall not effective management is what drives most of the financial failures and mismanagement. A lot of it is cultural and also political and a lot of other things. I was wholly unsuccessful in accomplishing most of that. That’s been a disappointment.
To what do you attribute that? Was it the composition of the board? The dysfunction of the system?
We are at a juncture or era of time in our country, for the last 20 years or more, where almost nobody is looking at trying to develop long-term structural changes and fixes to heal the system. Everything is instant gratification, that’s what the public demands, and that’s what the politicians give on all levels. Trying to buck that historical tidal wave on top of the long history of dysfunction in the district and the various political factions in this district, which means parents as well as interest groups, probably was wholly unrealistic in retrospect, for me to expect that extremely hard decisions that would cause great outcry, could be made. My expectations were unrealistic from the beginning.
You have been a big supporter of Superintendent Cindy Marten from the beginning. How do you think she is doing?
The most important decision I’ve made on the board, and the easiest, to me, was selecting Cindy for the job. …
There are three basic things about Cindy. No. 1: Making sure every single employee in the district understands why they are there and what is expected of them. That’s her goal, at least. I’m not saying every single employee knows that yet, but that’s her goal. No. 2: Making sure every single employee has the support they need to be able to do their job. If you have an expectation for a custodian to clean 10 classrooms a night, and they don’t have the training or equipment to do that, then that’s the district’s responsibility. Right now, of course, the primary thing is making sure all teachers understand and are able to deal with Common Core. No. 3 is the most important: Hold them accountable. At the end of the day, if after having clear expectations, support and training, if they’re not doing the job, then it’s time for them to move on.
Cindy will not be shy in moving people on. You’ve seen a lot of turnover in principals and vice principals. You’ve had principals of high schools moved back to vice principals of elementary schools. That never happens, never! ….
She has not turned her focus to the business side of the operation, which has a lot of problems in the middle lower management. That’s going to take more time. Also, it’s not the strength she brings to the table. The thing I’ve been amazed at with Cindy is she has a remarkable ability to immerse herself in topic and become extremely knowledgeable and skilled about it and make the right decision.
So we won’t see you running for any future elective offices?
No, there is no office I see that I would be interested in running for, especially City Council. Many people said, “Oh, Scott’s going to run for City Council.” I’d rather be boiled it hot oil than be on the City Council.
Being the superintendent is a tough job that Cindy Marten’s predecessors didn’t want to keep for very long. Do you think she will stick around to lead San Diego Unified for five years, 10 years?
I could see Cindy being here for the rest of her life. She has no ambition for other jobs. She’d be happy sitting in the classroom with kids. Even over 10, 15 or 20 years, there will always be more to do in this district because of who we are. Sixty percent of our kids are in poverty. That number is not going to get lower, probably in the next 10 or 20 years, sadly. ….
I have confidence that Cindy will, if given the opportunity, be able to create a system which will meet the needs of all of the kids. There’s always going to be new kids and new challenges.
What has been Cindy Marten’s greatest challenge? What have been her best achievements?
The biggest challenge was dealing with the culture of an organization that did not have a culture of accountability, and is also very risk-averse. Some people say gravity is the strongest force in the universe, but I have found that bureaucratic inertia is, in fact, the strongest force in the universe.
You’ve talked about your frustrations in being unable to change the bureaucracy – what about successes? What were you able to accomplish?
The one thing I tried to do as a board member was to say that in this time of shortage of revenues, we can deliver services better by working with either other government entities or business or nonprofits. Just at my last board meeting, we approved three things – one of them I’ve been working on for four years. By having an agreement with the Little Italy Association, who is going to refurbish the playground at Washington Elementary school with private money and take over the maintenance and operations and separate the dogs from the kids and pay the taxes the district is paying, and pay the water costs, they will get to use, and move an historic building to turn into public restrooms that they’ll maintain and secure, we are saving the city money. We are saving the district thousands of dollars a year in taxes, we’re improving the safety, so here’s a model, where you can work with a neighborhood group and have this long-term lease. That’s a new paradigm. …
The question is: If there’s not a champion chomping at the bit about these things, will they continue to go ahead? I don’t know. I know Superintendent Marten has the vision, and is leading it, but she has a lot on her plate.
I know it sounds strange, but the burden of having to worry about a hundred thousand children I really took to heart, I can’t wait that I don’t have to personally worry about their well-being any more. It will be a great burden relieved from me, which I emotionally took on, whether I should have or not, that’s just the way it is.