New Faces, Same Direction at School Board

After the San Diego Unified school board majority took controversial stands that allied them with unions, like backing a labor pact on school construction, critics predicted their day of reckoning would come at the polls.

But when voters weighed in Tuesday, they threw their support to candidates who pledged to work side-by-side with those same board members — and it looked likely that they would eject the dissidents on the school board, Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck. Voters gave a thumbs-up to candidates who are likely to partner with the existing school board, even as they shunned a new tax for schools.

Middle school math teacher Kevin Beiser held a commanding lead over businessman Stephen Rosen when 74 percent of the votes were tallied, with 57 percent of the vote to Rosen’s 43 percent. Write-in votes for incumbent Nakamura haven’t been counted, but early totals showed few write-in votes at all. Budget consultant Scott Barnett led de Beck 51 percent to 49 percent at the same time.

Nakamura was knocked out in the June primary and waged a write-in campaign to keep her seat. Such campaigns are extraordinarily difficult, even more so in elections like the school board, which gets little limelight. As votes were tallied up, it appeared that few voters had bothered to write in anyone at all.

Beiser had almost every advantage in the school board race. He raised more money. He was endorsed by the teachers union. And he was a teacher with awards under his belt — a simple fact that earned him credibility. His campaign was simple and positive, touting small classes and stressing his teaching savvy.

The race was so polarized that the candidates often seemed to talk past each other. They diagnosed the problems at San Diego Unified completely differently: Beiser argued the school board needed a teacher who understood the classroom and would support its decentralized school reforms. Rosen argued that the teachers union, which backed Beiser, had too much sway and the board needed a businessman to bring it in line. Meanwhile, Nakamura touted her work on unifying causes like music education.

Ultimately, Beiser and his plug as a passionate teacher won out. “I don’t know what Steve Rosen believes in. I just know what Kevin Beiser believes in,” said Jonathan Thomas, the volunteer coordinator on Beiser’s campaign. “He really loves doing things for kids.”

So far, the school board has opted to let schools come up with their own reforms and steered clear of tying teacher evaluation to test scores, which the union loathes. Beiser is widely expected to chime in with those ideas, keeping the school board on the same keel. Rosen would have been a dissenting voice, especially on budget issues, where he feels the school board has given too much to employees.

Barnett is a more unlikely ally for the school board majority, but an ally nonetheless. He capitalized on voters’ frustration with de Beck, who has spent nearly two decades on the board. De Beck gained his political footing as a fierce opponent of former Superintendent Alan Bersin and a teachers union ally. De Beck billed himself as an “idea guy” who devised creative solutions like splitting up the school district.

But de Beck often struggled to rally people around his ideas and get them done. He won fans by airing out problems, but alienated fellow board members by grandstanding before his facts were solid. He lost support from the union he once helped lead.

While Barnett would be the sole Republican on the school board and a likely labor critic, fellow school board members Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans endorsed Barnett, saying while they didn’t always agree with him, they could work with him. Barnett also temporarily snagged the endorsement from the teachers union, but lost it when he said he couldn’t back the schools tax.

It was a surprisingly anemic campaign: Neither Barnett nor de Beck raised much money. De Beck spent the last two weeks in Turkey with his wife instead of hitting the campaign trail. Sitting school board members are normally tough to unseat; Barnett chalked up the results to voter disgust with incumbents.

In the school board races, however, rejecting incumbents meant rejecting the dissidents. That means that even if voters opt for new faces when the numbers are finally tallied up, the results would push San Diego Unified in the same direction: towards a vision of school reform that is driven from the bottom, that sees the teachers union as an ally, not an enemy.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert
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