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Monday, January 23, 2006 | If fame and glory are what you’re after, don’t bother running for a seat on the San Diego County Board of Education.

Though their power is sweeping and the impact of their actions on every public school student in the county is significant, their names and job responsibilities remain virtually unknown.

John Witt, Nick Aguilar, Ernie Dronenburg, Robert Watkins, Susan Hartley – these are your elected officials from five distinct areas who serve on the county Board of Education and represent the interests of local students and parents. The names may sound vaguely familiar, but exactly who they are and what they do is a mystery for most county residents.

One name, Ernie Dronenburg, has been in the news lately because he resigned from his seat in December. Although newly elected board president Susan Hartley said she would prefer a general election to fill the vacancy, the four remaining board members are required to appoint someone.

“We are planning on appointing because the county charter says that’s what we have to do,” she said.

The board has taken a bit of criticism for not better publicizing the open seat, but Hartley said they have only 45 days to appoint a replacement, leaving very little time to get the word out.

Yes, but … why, as of this writing, is news of the open seat not included on the home page of the San Diego County Office of Education’s Web site? As others have pointed out, a number of in-the-news items are featured on the home page, but not this important announcement.

Making it easy for prospective candidates to find out about the vacancy and obtain information on how to apply is in the best interests of SDCOE, if the board is serious about wanting a large, diverse pool of applicants.

Those interested in applying for Dronenburg’s seat have until Friday to submit completed forms. Applications are available from SDCOE, located at 6401 Linda Vista Road, (858) 292-3500.

The county is divided into five districts, each representing equal population numbers, more or less. Dronenburg’s replacement must live in SDCOE’s Third District, which is a different Third District than the one for the county Board of Supervisors. Naturally. Nothing is simple or straight-forward in government.

The boundaries for SDCOE’s Third District look like they were drawn by a crazed kindergartner with a dull crayon. It encompasses areas generally east of I-15 and south of I-8 to the Mexican border. School districts include all or parts of La Mesa, Cajon Valley, Lemon Grove, Sweetwater, Jamul-Dulzura, Grossmont, Alpine and Mountain Empire.

A special board meeting has been called for Feb. 6 to select Dronenburg’s replacement. Hartley said each candidate will have five minutes to present themselves to the board, and time will be allotted for questions.

In the Solana Beach School District last year, two board members met privately to filter out several candidates applying for a board vacancy, rejecting their applications before they had an opportunity to come before the full board.

In contrast, for SDCOE’s vacancy, all candidates will be heard by all four board members. “Everybody has a fair shot,” Hartley said.

Because Dronenburg’s term is up in 2006, board members are seeking candidates who will commit to running for the seat in the upcoming primary and general elections this year. Hartley said the board would be reluctant to appoint someone who is not interested in going before the voters and running for the office. This means filing papers in March, running in the June 6 primary and, potentially, in the general election in November.

Incidentally, Hartley is also up for re-election in 2006. She represents the Fifth District, a north coastal region that extends from Del Mar in the south to Fallbrook and inland in the north.

Look for board members to test each candidate’s commitment to the prevailing philosophy of the current board, which has worked well together since 2002 when Hartley replaced Susen Fay in a battle that pitted two Republican women with fundamentally different ideologies against one another.

During her four years on the county board, from 1998 to 2002, Fay and fellow board member Jim Kelly – now a Grossmont Union High School District school board member – voted to block most federal grant money, said to have totaled close to $50 million, because they believed the money came with too many strings attached. A divided board overruled Fay and Kelly 3-2 on most matters, but those years were marked by bitterness.

In 2002, Hartley defeated Fay, based mostly upon Hartley’s conviction that SDCOE is obligated to pass along federal grant money and let local school districts decide for themselves whether the grants’ conditions could be met.

The memory of those years of strife is still fresh, so this issue is likely to be a litmus test for any applicant.

Why you should care about the county office of education

SDCOE’s budget has grown from about $280 million in 2002 to more than $500 million today. The board’s decisions affect the quality of education, and indeed the overall quality of life in the San Diego region, in many ways – most of them unknown to the majority of citizens.

Hartley identified several areas of responsibility for SDCOE and its board members that parents and students should know about.

– SDCOE established the Achievement Gap Task Force in 2003, which is comprised of representatives from school districts throughout the county. The task force’s purpose is to close the gap in academic achievement between white, middle-class students and minority and low-income students, through collaborative efforts that bring principals, superintendents and board members together to share the best practices.

– “We have influence statewide,” Hartley said. “We work hard to lobby for quality education laws and more funding.”

– The county office helps school districts understand and implement changes required as a result of new legislation or recent court actions, like the far-reaching Williams case in California.

– SDCOE provides help to students and schools with the high-stakes California High School Exit Exam. For the first time, this year’s seniors are required to pass both the math and language arts sections of the CAHSEE to receive a high school diploma, and several thousand San Diego County seniors have not yet done so.

– The county office provides services for small school districts that Hartley said might not exist if not for SDCOE’s support services. Many of these tiny school districts, some of which only have one or two schools, don’t have enough money to employ full-time people for many jobs, so they rely upon the county for employment and human resources services. They also take advantage of SDCOE’s teacher training, technology services and curriculum assistance. Some of these small districts include Bonsall, Jamul, Mountain Empire, Alpine, Borrego, Spencer Valley, Julian and Cardiff.

– Helping school districts cope with declining enrollment and less money is a major role for SDCOE.

– SDCOE acts as a clearing house for special education funding and services.

– The kids who have fallen through the cracks – the homeless, those in foster homes, those in the juvenile court system – depend upon SDCOE for their education, and sometimes for their very survival.

– Districts embroiled in thorny labor disputes can come to SDCOE for assistance.

– SDCOE has financial oversight for all 42 school districts in the county.

– An immediate need is to select a replacement for retiring county superintendent Rudy Castruita, who leaves the district in June after 12 years with SDCOE. Hartley believes SDCOE has been a model of efficiency, and attributes much of the agency’s success to Castruita, whose low-key style “brings people together,” she said. One reason for his effectiveness, she said, is that San Diego is one of only three counties in the state that appoints its county superintendent. All others are elected by voters.

Because SDCOE takes a more global view and has extensive experience with a range of issues county-wide, board members and staff have the ability to recognize potential problems and offer recommendations to increase efficiency and avoid trouble. So some have criticized the agency for being too passive and not taking more pro-active positions.

But Hartley said the role of the board is to respect local control and only offer guidance when called upon. “We pretty much wait to be asked,” she said, pointing out the fine line between giving advice and initiating action that might be viewed as interference.

Also, because SDCOE often acts as an appeals board, “it’s better if we don’t get involved in local issues,” she said. “We like to remain more neutral.”

As education issues become more and more complex, look for the role of SDCOE to expand and its behind-the-scenes board members to gain wider name recognition. Despite a historically discreet operating style, these elected officials are sure to face greater accountability and increased visibility in the years ahead. Not such a bad thing – for voters or politicians.

Marsha Sutton writes about education. She can be reached at

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