Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 | Poised for an upset that would dramatically reshape the San Diego Unified school board, child psychologist John Lee Evans appeared close to narrowly toppling a sitting trustee, Mitz Lee, in a rare feat that would double as a dramatic demonstration of the political muscle of the teachers union.

As of early Wednesday morning, Evans had garnered 53 percent of the vote with nearly 55 percent of precincts counted, his lead widening with each new tally.

His election, along with that of incumbent Shelia Jackson and unchallenged newcomer Richard Barrera, would install a new majority on the board: a triad that is backed by the teachers union, wary of some of the reforms pushed by Superintendent Terry Grier, and loath to resort to teacher layoffs as another financial crisis looms for San Diego Unified.

“This tips the balance on the school board toward the teachers,” said John Oren, a retiree and former San Diego Unified teacher who campaigned for Evans. “For once it will be a truly progressive board.”

Evans rode a wave of discontent over teacher layoffs to challenge Lee, aided by the teachers union, which poured more than $388,000 into mailers and ads that reviled Lee for cutting teachers during the budget crisis that menaced San Diego Unified this spring. If Evans clings to his lead, their sweat and cash may have achieved the Matterhorn feat of unseating an incumbent school board member — something that Evans said has not been achieved in San Diego Unified since 1979 — and a sizable challenge that had bested other groups in the past.

“Clearly the union was unhappy with Mitz,” said Scott Barnett, a political consultant who had once planned to run for the same seat but dropped out when Lee decided to seek re-election. “It may have been more than anyone spent in San Diego on anything.”

The nail-biter pitted Lee, who forged her political career four years ago as a parent activist fending off the aggressive, unpopular reforms of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, against child psychologist and educator Evans, who gained favor as an eloquent opponent of teacher layoffs as budget cuts savaged San Diego Unified last spring. The two are polar opposites in style and in substance. She is a Republican who backs No Child Left Behind; he is a Democrat who believes that law pushes “robotic learning.” She spoke of scrubbing out educational “fads” and “fuzzy math”; he talked about 21st century skills and prioritizing teachers as budgets drop.

Allies have praised Lee as being not being swayed by political pressure — a trait that translates to critics as a tin ear — while Evans snapped up endorsements from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and former superintendent Carl Cohn. She shied from rallies and demurred from a statement denouncing the state budget cuts, saying it was merely scolding the governor; Evans said a school board member should protest the cuts.

“Here is a genuine person who will bust his butt if he has to, lobby Sacramento, whatever it takes,” said retired teacher Judy Ki, an Evans supporter who recruited him to run for the seat. “He knows what it takes.”

Lee criticized Evans as long on rhetoric and short on specifics, and billed herself as a pragmatic workhorse who would stay above the political fray. She pointed to curricular reforms such as reinstituting phonics, which was stripped from classrooms under Bersin, and a new policy that bars schools from promoting failing middle schoolers to high school. Neither Evans nor Lee have detailed how they would cope with budget cuts, but Evans has pledged to avoid layoffs, a promise that Lee argued was irresponsible and could hobble the school district financially. She decried the claims in the teachers union ads, which used selected figures from the San Diego Unified budget, and Evans’ own claims about teacher layoffs as misleading and dishonest.

She has earned support across the political spectrum in her four years on the board from parents and community members, many of whom invoked her battles with Bersin. Former board members Frances O’Neill Zimmerman and Ann Armstrong-Ash backed her along with a former teachers union executive director, Robin Whitlow. Her insistence on balancing the budget — even if it meant the politically toxic step of laying off teachers — won her fans who believed that she had made the fiscally responsible choice instead of cowing to pressure to spare teachers no matter what.

“If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,” said Jacquelyn Talbert, a retired teacher who backed Lee. “She is a fine person and I’m hoping she will win.”

Lee did not visit Election Central in downtown San Diego and could not be reached Tuesday night. While Evans supporters cheered and lifted their signs as the tallies rose in Golden Hall, Lee supporters were less visible and less vocal. There were no signs bearing her name, no chants, and no procession through the crowded hall to champion the anti-Bersin reformer who had won a smashing victory just four years ago.

Though voters also deliberated Tuesday over two other seats on the San Diego Unified board, the bitter contest between Lee and Evans was billed as the race to watch. Labor organizer Richard Barrera ran unopposed after incumbent Luis Acle failed to gather enough signatures to vie for his own seat; incumbent Shelia Jackson appeared to prevail over computer teacher Xeng Yang, whose shaky answers at public forums failed to inspire confidence in some voters, despite the sometimes controversial firebrand tone that Jackson has struck as the most frequent dissenter on the San Diego Unified board.

And as San Diego Unified braces for another grim year of slashed budgets, the reshaped board is bound to face daunting new problems. Evans must devise a way to balance its books without breaking his campaign promises to spare teachers; Barrera and Evans both must learn the ropes quickly as new trustees thrust into the heartache and haggling of a financial crisis in the second-largest school district in California, a byzantine bureaucracy with a thorny history.

“This will be a really challenging year,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “But now we have a school board majority that has its priorities straight and sees teachers as people, not as numbers.”

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