Tuesday, May 30, 2006 | When she got the call, she could hardly believe it. “He threatened me,” said Susan Hartley, president of the San Diego County Board of Education.

Hartley, who is up for re-election this year, said Rick Otis called and told her she had to appoint a Republican to replace Republican Ernie Dronenburg, the Third District representative on the county school board who resigned last December. Hartley claims that Otis, a former member of San Diego County’s Republican Party Central Committee, said the party would find a candidate to run against her this June if she didn’t take his advice.

“I’m nonpartisan,” said an outraged Hartley, who is a registered Republican. “At the county school board office, it doesn’t matter what party you are. We all need to come together.”

Otis admitted he called Hartley but said he didn’t threaten her. “I did contact her,” he said. “I told her that Rick Winet would have been a good appointment. That would be the proper move for a Republican – to appoint another Republican. Unfortunately she didn’t do that.”

Winet, who serves as a trustee for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, was one of 11 candidates who applied to fill out the remainder of Dronenburg’s term, which expires the end of this year.

“I can’t remember the exact conversation,” Otis said, adding that it was a personal phone call and he was not acting in any official capacity.

By the time the appointment was made by the four remaining board members in February, the field had been narrowed to four candidates, and Winet was not among them. Democrat Sharon Jones, also a trustee for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, was eventually appointed to the seat, winning support from Hartley and fellow board members Nick Aguilar and John Witt.

Aguilar is a Democrat, and Witt is a Republican. Hartley said Witt was targeted also, “but he’s not up for election this year and isn’t board president.”

Not voting for Jones was the fourth board member, Republican Bob Watkins, head of the conservative, politically influential Lincoln Club of San Diego County.

As a result of her vote for Jones, Hartley claims conservative Republicans convinced Gary Felien to run against her. Felien, who turned in his papers at the last hour, is a financial analyst and investor from Oceanside and a member of the county’s Republic Party Central Committee.

Felien is Hartley’s only opponent and is endorsed by The Lincoln Club. Hartley feels the endorsement is payback for not voting for a Republican to replace Dronenburg. “You had your marching orders,” Hartley said Watkins told her.

“I don’t recall the Republican Party ever threatening any candidate for anything,” said Watkins, who denied making the comment to Hartley. “Gary Felien volunteered on his own. It’s a free country.”

Watkins, who supported Republican Arkan Somo to fill the vacancy on the board, said he did tell Hartley that appointing a Republican to fill Dronenburg’s seat would be appropriate since Dronenburg was Republican. “But there was no implied threat,” he said.

The Republican Party sends out notices when races are open and encourages party members to run for political office, said Watkins, who has endorsed both Hartley and Felien. “We are looking for people who can look at things objectively and not the same old way,” he said.

Felien said Hartley was imagining “some vast right-wing conspiracy” against her and denied he was recruited to run. However, in March, in the North County Times, Felien said that “he decided to run during conversations with other Republican Party Central Committee members.”

“Education is a bipartisan issue,” Hartley said. “I don’t think we should be looking at party affiliation all the time. I’m focusing on kids.”

Watkins agreed, saying, “How the money is used for the benefit of the kids – for me, that’s the issue.”

Partisan Politics

Besides The Lincoln Club and a number of local Republican politicians, Felien, 47, has also been endorsed by the San Diego Republican Party – and has the controversial endorsements of conservative school board members Jim Kelly of Grossmont and Jim Gibson of Vista.

San Diego County Republican Party chair Ron Nehring did not return phone calls to explain why his party endorsed the challenger over the Republican incumbent.

Hartley is alarmed by Felien supporters Kelly and Gibson and is concerned that Felien’s backers include ultra-conservatives with radical agendas for education. “Their ideologies are very extreme,” she said. “You have to wonder, if he’s seeking endorsements from those types of people.”

Felien said he is not running to promote conservative social issues.

“I never got the impression that he was an extremist in any way, shape or form,” Watkins said. “I’ve heard him ask questions that have deep roots in fiscal responsibility. I would not support the [extremist] ideology.”

Watkins said his disappointment with Jones is not a partisan issue. “It was a philosophical issue,” he said. “I believe we should be working collectively to live within our means. It’s unfortunate that teachers’ associations don’t believe they need to live within their means.”

Hartley considers herself a moderate Republican – conservative fiscally and moderate on social issues. But Felien said she is “out of touch with her district. The truth is that people have lost confidence in her,” he said.

Although she has been criticized for being opposed to belt-tightening and “not Republican enough” on fiscal issues, Hartley disagrees. “I don’t believe in throwing money at public education,” she said. She believes education should be funded based upon independent studies now underway that will determine precisely how much it costs to educate children in California.

Watkins may disagree with Hartley on fiscal priorities, but he applauded her for being collaborative and respectful. “Sue maintains our code of conduct and is very civil,” he said.

Felien, however, has a different view. “She has brought partisanship to the board,” he said.

Astonished by the comment, Hartley says she has worked well with everyone on the board and there has never been any talk of partisanship until Felien entered the race.

Hartley has been endorsed by prominent San Diego Republicans Mayor Jerry Sanders, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and County Treasurer Dan McAllister. In addition, she has the support of the four other county school board members, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and former state Senator and respected education expert Dede Alpert.

Hartley, 58, lives in Carlsbad and served from 1992 to 2003 on the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education. She is supported by SDUHSD superintendent Peggy Lynch and former superintendent Bill Berrier, who served from 1971 to 2001.

The Issues

Felien, who has a business and finance background, identified financial oversight as a county school board member’s primary duty and said he wants to apply private sector practices to the public sector. He said he could “steer the county better” than the incumbent.

“She seems to be focusing her attention against the governor,” said Felien, whose Web site states his support for parent choice through charter schools, private schools, home-schooling, transfers between schools, vouchers, merit pay and tenure reform.

Hartley, whose Web site emphasizes her 15 years of experience as a school board member at the local and county levels, said she too supports parent choice, and that charter schools, private schools, home-schooling and school choice within districts “all play a huge role.”

Although she does not support vouchers that provide public money to private schools, “for some kids, private schools are the right choice,” she said. “You have to figure out what’s best for your child.”

Regarding merit pay, “we should be putting qualified teachers where they are most needed,” she said. “If it takes merit pay to do that, then we may need to go there.”

One of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s four initiatives on the ballot that failed to pass last November would have extended the time required for teachers to receive tenure from two years to five years. Felien supported the measure, but Hartley said districts should have more flexibility in tenure decisions. “Two years is not long enough, but five years may be too long,” she said.

The Republican Party is particularly peeved at Hartley’s lack of enthusiasm for the four propositions the governor put forth last year. “What the governor was trying to do from an education point of view needed support,” Watkins said. “Sue didn’t support the governor’s initiatives.”

But Hartley said she only opposed Proposition 76, which would have lowered the required minimum level of funding for education. Felien called her public opposition to Prop. 76 a “silly spectacle.”

The San Diego County Office of Education oversees a nearly $500 million budget and provides the 42 school districts in the county with dozens of resources and support services for teachers, administrators, parents and students.

A major undertaking by SDCOE recently has been a focused effort to reduce and eventually eliminate the achievement gap in mathematics at all county school districts.

“The county office is really well-run, and probably is one of the best in the state,” said Hartley, who represents District 5, which stretches from Del Mar and Poway in the south along the coastal communities to Oceanside in the north and east to Fallbrook.

Board members are currently busy interviewing candidates to replace Superintendent Rudy Castruita who resigned his post and will be leaving SDCOE in June after 12 years at the helm.

Although generally well-respected throughout the state, not everyone thinks Castruita walks on water.

“It’s whatever Rudy wants,” complained Otis. “Rubber stamps are pretty much what they want [on the board]. They try to put people on there that pretty much go with the status quo.”

Otis said the county school board should have people “who believe in personal responsibility.” The alternative, he said, are those “who believe government solves all your problems which is the mantra of the Democratic Party.”

When asked if he disapproves of the work by SDCOE, Otis replied, “I don’t pay that much attention, to be honest. But I know we’re spending a ton of money on education and we’re not getting what we want. The dollars are eaten up by bureaucracy.”

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org. Or, write a letter to the editor here.

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