Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 | School board member Shelia Jackson was disappointed when former Superintendent Carl Cohn threw in the towel at San Diego Unified last year. She blamed another board member for berating Cohn, praised the superintendent for gradual and cautious reforms, and stayed mum on the scandal that ejected one of his top appointees.

“You can’t have someone who is constantly undermining your authority at every turn,” Jackson said last September. “And that’s what some board members have done.”

Now Jackson is being accused of — and praised for — doing the same. Under a new superintendent, Terry Grier, Jackson has become a firebrand whose bold statements have earned her both hostility and respect. Her voting record has long pitted Jackson against her peers on teacher layoffs and spending equity across the school district, but her role has shifted under Grier, a newcomer who has quickly made waves with new projects and made enemies in the teachers union. Now, Jackson has become the school board’s chief dissident.

“We’re not elected to support the superintendent,” Jackson said in an October interview. “We’re elected to hold him accountable.”

Her opponent in the coming election, Xeng Yang, complains that she criticizes Grier in public; Jackson fought a policy that would bar her and other trustees from publicly criticizing the superintendent and his staff, something she rarely did to Cohn. She called for an investigation of Grier and fellow board member Katherine Nakamura after a campaign meeting with principals became a political hot potato; she has hinted publicly that other board members should be ousted in the coming elections.

Yang argues that his opponent is beholden to the teachers union. “I don’t think she wants to keep the superintendent. She goes along with the teachers. She was elected by the people to represent students, not a group of adult teachers,” he said, adding, “She seems like she doesn’t get along with other school board members.”

The race between Yang and Jackson has been quiet compared to other contests. Yang, a computer teacher, has fumbled in public forums and netted only a few endorsements, most notably from the county Republican Party and the conservative-leaning Lincoln Club.

And standing alone on the board has insulated Jackson from the ordinary dents and scrapes of being an incumbent with a host of unpopular decisions — and their consequences — under her belt. From the catbird seat of an incumbent she talks like a challenger, repeatedly urging crowds to “change the board.” It is a strange rallying cry for an insider, unless she is offering subtle hints about doing away with her current colleagues.

She’s won the support of the teachers union, which bolstered her campaign with a torrent of television and radio advertisements from the teachers union. That same outpouring has threatened to unseat one of her peers, Mitz Lee, and anoint John Lee Evans, a child psychologist who decried warning hundreds of teachers of potential layoffs earlier this year. If Evans is elected he will likely join with Richard Barrera, a newcomer who faces no challenge for his seat, to make Jackson a ringleader instead of a lone wolf in swearing off teacher layoffs and vocally challenging the superintendent.

“You can have Shelia and Richard up there raising hell,” Evans told a supportive crowd at a forum sponsored by the Association of Raza Educators, “or you can have three of us talking to the other two.”

‘She Is Gonna Vote the Way She Votes’

Jackson has long been outvoted on the San Diego Unified board, even under Cohn. Over the past three years, she has been the most frequent dissenter on its major decisions, according to a review of board actions. Her campaign flyers dub her “Action Jackson,” but her desired actions have frequently been stymied by her peers. She has complained of being marginalized on the school board. Barrera said Jackson is not willfully contrarian — she is merely outnumbered.

“Her dissent has been on issues where she has a fundamental disagreement over priorities and values with the majority of board members,” Barrera said, adding, “She is gonna vote the way she votes.”

Last fall she split with her peers on a plan to hold struggling 8th graders back, saying that San Diego Unified should be intervening earlier; she was twice overruled on a push to reallocate federal funding for disadvantaged students to pull more money into the neediest schools. She voted against a new charter high school run by a Barrio Logan franchise, saying its guidelines were poorly written, and against using a state grant originally intended for low-achieving students to clamp down on class size for the most gifted students in San Diego Unified. Each time she was on the losing end.

“I consider Shelia a very weak board member,” said Kenji Ima, a retired San Diego State sociologist who has endorsed Yang, his friend. “She seems to be absent. She grandstands. I don’t think the board members had an alternative but to give teachers layoff notices, and she made a grandstand and took an irresponsible position.”

Jackson joined the school board four years ago during the tumultuous tenure of then-Superintendent Alan Bersin, beating out a retired educator who had a doctorate and the endorsement of the teachers union. A mother of one daughter, Jackson became a math teacher after more than two decades serving in the U.S. Navy, and has said she still substitutes in other school districts. She represents some of the poorest areas in San Diego Unified, such as Encanto and Paradise Hills, and ran for election to pull federal funding for disadvantaged students, which Bersin had centralized to pay for his reforms, back into the individual schools.

“Shelia has been fairly consistent on the issue of her primary concern: Equity with regard to kids who historically have not been well-served by the district,” said Cohn, who is backing Jackson is this election. “That comes through loud and clear as her No. 1 issue.”

And though her votes have often been overridden, he said, she is still a political force.

“Politically, she is much smarter than people think she is,” Cohn said. “Shelia is street-savvy. She’s got some rough edges, and I think that’s why people underestimate her.”

Parent Protest Has Helped Sway Board

Despite being frequently outvoted, Jackson has been able to make change when parents chime in. She argued that a coveted magnet school should be placed in the Gompers area as originally planned, even though San Diego Unified staffers contended it would be cheaper to locate it elsewhere, and the outcry from parents forced the school district to keep the magnet at Gompers and invent another option for the other community. Behind closed doors Jackson voted against reassigning Edward Caballero, the popular bilingual principal of Sherman Elementary School, to a school in Scripps Ranch. Protest from parents eventually goaded Grier to reassign Caballero back to Sherman. And weeks after she voted against governance policies that included a controversial provision barring board members from publicly criticizing the superintendent and his staffers, public uproar over that rule led the school board to nix it.

“Shelia has remained consistent even when it means voting alone,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “That’s both courageous and it’s what any elected official is supposed to do.”

Several of her dissenting votes have been championed by employee unions as Jackson vies for re-election against Yang: She was the lone trustee to vote against notifying more than 900 educators of potential layoffs in March, and also voted against cutting custodians, warehouse workers and other non-educators. Throughout her board career, Jackson has pinpointed and questioned tiny details in the barrage of contracts that go before the board, earning kudos from the blue-collar unions that contend that funds have been misspent on outside consultants, attorneys and contractors while employees are cut.

“We really respected when she voted against the budget cuts,” said Juan Orozco, coordinator of the Association of Raza Educators. His group decided not to endorse Jackson because it didn’t believe she faced a real challenge from Yang. “We were really impressed because she stood alone.”

Board members who opted to cut teachers say Jackson made an irresponsible and politically safe choice. Because she was outvoted on laying teachers off, Jackson has never needed to articulate a clear alternative that could keep the San Diego Unified budget balanced while sparing its educators.

“It’s easier for people to scream and yell that we should not do this because they know three of us will make the tough decisions,” said school board member Mitz Lee, who voted for teacher layoffs and is opposed by employee unions.

Urging Voters to ‘Change the Board’

Jackson’s relationship with her board peers has grown increasingly strained after the superintendent began investigating whether Jackson had improperly spent San Diego Unified funds on a back-to-school conference. The event was not officially approved by the school district, but staffers mistakenly thought it was a San Diego Unified event when they gave Jackson permission to borrow a district procurement card to fill backpacks with school supplies, pledging to repay the district.

Prodding employees to allow her to use the card was questioned as an instance of meddling with the staff, a problem that has erupted over and over on the San Diego Unified board. Others complained that Jackson might have used the event as a political springboard, raising her banner alongside that of City Councilman Tony Young. Jackson and the nonprofit that sponsored the conference, PAZZAZ, had already repaid the district for some costs. But the district’s custodial and police services had not been charged to the nonprofit for the event.

Grier and school board member John de Beck proposed to wave off the conference costs, which totaled $13,500, but Lee and Nakamura voted down that idea. Jackson said the flurry of questions was politically motivated; Lee slammed Jackson for a lack of judgment.

“They broke the peace treaty,” said John Stump, a City Heights parent and attorney who backs Jackson. “They were all going to get along and work towards a common goal, and Mitz Lee and Nakamura broke it. They said the biggest damn thing was this [$13,500] dollars.”

Ever since, Jackson has stepped up her calls to “change the board.” When Lee canceled her appearance at a forum in southeast San Diego, Jackson stated that when candidates decide not to come, “that should be a very clear message to you that they don’t care.” Outside of those forums, Jackson insists that she wants to change the school board’s mindset, not necessarily its members, but that distinction is lost in her public pronouncements.

“You need other board members … that will do their homework prior to coming to the board meeting,” Jackson told the audience at a Catfish Club debate. At another debate she insisted, “If we are going to get a board that will make a difference, we need people that will go help children.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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