Wednesday, May 7, 2008 | When the state handed down a potential $80 million deficit to San Diego Unified School District, Mitz Lee voted in March to issue layoff warnings to nearly 1,000 teachers.

Now, that decision could impact her own job security.

State budget cuts dominate the debate between Lee and challenger John Lee Evans, a psychologist who has criticized Lee and the school board for issuing layoff warnings to more than 900 classroom teachers. Evans has questioned teacher layoffs, called for trustees to aggressively protest the cuts and pointed to other California districts that spared teachers. Lee has defended the cuts as the only realistic solution to a predicted $80 million deficit, and denounced exiting superintendent Carl Cohn for failing to budget for an estimated $20 million salary increase for teachers.

That split pulled the teachers union into the fray. The union, which remained neutral during Lee’s last campaign, has vocally thrown its support to Evans.

“John is a very intelligent, insightful guy who understands that kids are not little robots we program — we nurture them. And he supports teachers. I’m tired of not getting any support,” said Judy Ki, a retired teacher at the helm of Evans’ campaign who personally endorsed Lee over Reff in 2004, and has since been disappointed with her record. “If she cannot stand up for teachers, I have a problem with it.”

The race between Lee and Evans poses a new test of the teachers union’s power, and whether the aggravation over teacher layoffs will translate into an electoral rebuke. And it highlights the philosophical split between Lee and Evans, who believes that school board members are obliged to speak out aggressively against state proposals that imperil schools. Lee derides those declarations as symbolic rather than practical.

Those statements belong outside a school board meeting, she argued.

“It’s not my cup of tea to go to a rally and score points with one side,” she said. “It doesn’t solve problems.”

During the 2004 election, voters sometimes confused Lee and opponent Miyo Reff, both Republican, both Asian-American, both longtime school volunteers and both critics of then-superintendent Alan Bersin. The look-alike problem was so grave that Reff started sporting a canary-yellow jacket that matched the No. 2 pencil on her campaign logo, expressly to distinguish herself from Lee. But Lee was more pointed in her criticism of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, tagged Reff as a “flip-flopper,” and won nearly 60 percent of votes citywide.

Unlike Reff, Evans is unlikely to be mistaken for Lee. Evans is a Democrat; Lee, a Republican. Evans criticizes the federal No Child Left Behind law for propelling “robotic learning;” Lee backs the law as a way to hold schools accountable. Evans orates readily on globalization and Google; Lee chats conversationally about curriculum and school board disputes.

As an incumbent, Lee enjoys an advantage in the little-watched school board race in District A, a northern swath of the city stretching from Bay Park to Mira Mesa east of Interstate 5.

Her two predecessors have endorsed her, and she’s built a bipartisan bank of supporters. Among her most-cited accomplishments are replacing Bersin with an educator as superintendent — Carl Cohn and subsequently Terry Grier — smoothing frictions between the school board and the superintendent, and stopping the “education fads” and excessive spending on consultants she says characterized Bersin’s era.

“I can’t think of a single incumbent school board member in San Diego who’s lost in recent history, even when a significant amount of money has been spent,” said Scott Barnett, the conservative president of who dropped out of the school board race in December. He has endorsed Lee. “Most people have no idea who’s on the school board. They just go in and say, ‘Yeah, the incumbent.’”

After dropping a City Council campaign in December, Lee admits she’s devoted little time to the school board race.

She’s received and spent less on her election bid than Evans, according to campaign disclosures submitted in March. Lee said she isn’t shaken by the teachers union’s support for Evans, citing the union’s minor role in recent school board elections. The union endorsed winning incumbent John de Beck in 2006, made no endorsement during the 2006 race for trustee Katherine Nakamura, and endorsed only one candidate, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, in the 2004 elections. She lost to Shelia Jackson.

Lee “has never been willing to take on the issues that matter most to teachers,” said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association. Amid the budget crisis, “she’s been hiding behind the numbers. She’s abdicated her responsibility to do what’s right.”

Lee didn’t seek the union endorsement and turned down an invitation to a union-sponsored candidates’ forum this year. Getting the union’s endorsement would compromise her independence and objectivity as the teachers bargain for a new contract, she said. Fending off accusations that his union endorsement would compromise him as a trustee, Evans said he hasn’t made any promises and won’t pledge to raise salaries. Still, for some voters, being snubbed by the union is a selling point for Lee.

“She’s not going to be beholden to the union,” said David Page, chairman of the district’s Advisory Council for Compensatory Education. Though Page disagreed with her choices on how to distribute federal money earmarked for low-income students, he readily endorsed Lee. “I can’t second-guess what she’s doing. She’s been a leader in pushing the district to evaluate curriculum, and she really understands education from the district level.”

Others warned against underestimating the union. When teachers unions mobilize, they are the biggest force in school board elections, said political consultant Bob Glaser, owner of The La Jolla Group. He attributed the union’s lackluster showing in recent elections to their failure to get heavily involved, not their failure to get votes. The union’s blood and sweat — if not their name — can influence parents and non-parents alike, he said.

“The anti-union sentiment in San Diego is a much-overblown factoid,” said Glaser, a Democrat. “… The teachers’ powerful message is founded on the trust parents have in the classroom.”

Coaxed by Ki, the former teacher, Evans dropped a congressional bid for Rep. Brian Bilbray’s seat to run for school board.

His experience includes teaching in the Peace Corps and later at local community colleges, and years of volunteering at his children’s schools in University City. Broadening technology in the classroom to prepare kids for the 21st century workforce is a mainstay of his campaign: His campaign logo features a laptop atop books. His endorsers include a slew of local Democratic and progressive groups and former Superintendent Carl Cohn.

“I see John as a person who’s thoughtful and deliberative and with no agenda, and understands the role of the school board,” Cohn said. “He doesn’t want to be an administrator. … And he’s really concerned about the morale of teachers and those who actually do the work.”

Evans invoked the Long Beach Unified and Los Angeles Unified school districts, which won’t lay off teachers, as examples for San Diego Unified. Instead of “passively sitting there and dividing the pie,” school trustees should proactively combat the state cuts by issuing resolutions, attending protests, and publicly speaking their minds. Lee countered that resolutions accomplish little and could alienate the legislators holding the state purse strings.

“It’s just scolding the governor,” Lee said at a Monday forum sponsored by the Mira Mesa Town Council.

“I can say what I’d like to say during my free time. But not as a part of governance,” she added during a Tuesday interview. “There’s nothing there to resolve anything. It’s symbolic.”

That indifference to symbolic measures — no matter how politically sensitive — epitomizes Lee’s approach to her job, Barnett said.

“In my 25 years in politics, I have never seen an elected official who is less concerned with the political fallout of the decisions she makes,” Barnett said. “That could be a good and bad thing. It would be very easy to simply play to the crowd [on the issue of teacher layoffs.] But she does almost 100 percent exactly what she thinks is right, without mitigating it with political factors.”

Evans has not specifically detailed how San Diego Unified would avoid teacher layoffs, but he offered a method to find alternate cuts. To ferret out waste, the district should hire an outside consultant to comb through departmental budgets, he said. That method would avoid the pitfalls of the current system, which relies heavily on input from departmental managers who may wish to preserve their own jobs at lower-level employees’ expense, Evans said.

“The last person standing needs to be the teacher,” Evans argued Monday night. “Even if there are no walls, we need teachers guiding our kids.”

No other debates are currently planned between Lee and Evans before the June 3 primary, when District A voters will weigh the two contenders. Because only two candidates are running, both Lee and Evans are expected to advance to the November districtwide election.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated that the teachers union made no endorsement in the 2006 school board elections. The union endorsed John de Beck. We regret the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at a letter to the editor.

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