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Monday, Dec. 8, 2008 | Reining in the squabbling San Diego Unified school board is a job that few would want — except for the members of the squabbling school board.

It is one of the chief responsibilities of the school board president, a coveted job that is alternately described as powerful and as merely ceremonial, and has been imagined differently by different presidents. Its duties are relatively mundane, including setting agendas, keeping order in meetings, and serving as the board spokesperson. But the presidency holds a certain political cachet, if a visible and vocal leader decides to use it by parading the title and steering meetings toward their interests.

“It gives the illusion of leadership. It’s like being class president in high school,” said Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a former school board member. “And in some instances, it can be a platform for your agenda.”

And with a new and controversial superintendent facing new overseers on the school board, the presidency could symbolize more than the presidency: It will signal whether Superintendent Terry Grier still has a majority that endorses his brand of rapid reform after a contentious election that dramatically reshaped the San Diego Unified board. It ushered in two new board members who are more skeptical of the actions and initiatives of Grier, a fast-moving and assertive reformer who has excited parents and observers with his initiatives to cut dropouts and bolster technology, but butted heads with the teachers union and the principals association over the quick rollout and costs of his plans.

The annual election of the board president by his or her peers — a seemingly small matter far removed from classrooms — is a barometer of how the new board will function or dysfunction in the future, revealing the alliances and clashes within the historically fractious body. Picking the annual president is the first decision posed to the new board. It will indicate who sides with whom on the most basic of political questions — who should have power — and that could be crucial for Grier and his planned reforms.

“If the president won’t stand with the superintendent then the superintendent is done for,” said David Page, chairman of a district advisory committee on the use of federal funds for low-income children.

Nothing is certain until the votes are tallied Monday, and anyone could be selected as president, veteran or newcomer. But it is clear that the tables have turned dramatically for incumbent Shelia Jackson, a frequent and vocal critic of Grier who was routinely outnumbered and outvoted in the past. With the election of John Lee Evans and Richard Barrera, who have pledged to quash “the top-down approaches of the past,” Jackson could find herself siding with the majority for the first time in her school board career, and some are even speaking of her as a potential president.

“Shelia has felt a little isolated there and I think she is going to have two friends” in Evans and Barrera, said Congressman Bob Filner, whose political career was launched on the school board three decades ago. “If she was elected president, for example, that would send a real message that the board has changed.”

That would mean unseating the current board president, Katherine Nakamura, who has championed Grier as an innovative leader with a record of success elsewhere. Over the past year, Nakamura led the board through a dismal budget crisis and teacher layoffs that further soured relationships with the teachers union, frequently denouncing the cuts at rallies and protests but defending the layoffs as a financially responsible choice. She fought passionately for a new facilities bond, praised a new system of school goals and district monitoring instituted by Grier, and successfully pushed for a more readily understandable budget for board members and for the public. But her fervent admiration of Grier could prove a political liability if the superintendent keeps clashing with unions and the new board majority.

“Every board president brings a different flavor to the presidency,” Nakamura said, nothing that she would be happy to serve again this year. “My challenge was bringing five very different people together. … I haven’t worked this hard since graduate school.”

The president is the official spokesperson for the board, though all board members can and typically do speak to the press. And while any school board member can bring up issues for discussion — both Jackson and de Beck have done so — the president creates the agenda for meetings along with the vice president and the superintendent, can steer meetings toward his or her priorities, and can get in the last word on debates and discussions.

“If you want to focus on art and music in high schools, you can put that on the agenda to be discussed. If you’re a fiscal conservative, you can highlight staff reports on how much could be saved by eliminating art and music,” said political consultant Robert Glaser, owner of The La Jolla Group. “The board as a whole is still going to make the decision. … But that is probably the largest true power involved with being board president.”

The president also has the unenviable task of keeping the school board civil and on task, a major feat for a board that has already undergone multiple rounds of governance training from consultants. Former school board member Sue Braun remembers that the board was visited by the California School Boards Association and even by a psychologist “so many times” to try to quash its bickering. Braun herself was forced to resign as school board president after she e-mailed several administrators to complain about two of her fellow board members, writing that her only remaining idea was “to shoot the both of them.”

Previous presidents have taken radically different approaches to the role. The last president before Nakamura, Luis Acle, was both praised and criticized for his hands-off approach to the job. He was frequently out of town, even out of the country, and ran unsuccessfully for City Council less than a year after accepting the presidency. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Ron Ottinger, who served as president for seven of the 12 years he spent on the school board and was sometimes accused of using his presidency to shut out opponents such as Zimmerman, who still calls him “president for life.” He worked strenuously to support then-Superintendent Alan Bersin.

“It is more than just a ceremonial role,” Ottinger said. “In the best of all worlds, the president is taking the temperature of the other members of the board and working to achieve a collective sense of how to move in a new direction with the superintendent. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.”

Another activist president was Filner, an opponent of then-Superintendent Thomas Goodman. Filner only won the presidency after new board members that shared his views were elected. He took stands on city issues, such as the school district share of taxes, and angled to be known as the voice and face of San Diego Unified. And his election as school board president was a signal that he had the political muscle to force Goodman out.

“It shows where the power is,” Filner said of the presidency, adding, “When they elected me president, I remember the superintendent looking at me as if I’d won. He knew his time was up.”

Who is elected is one matter — how they are elected is another. If board members grapple for hours over who gets the title, it could bode poorly for how the new leaders will settle other, thornier questions as another budget crisis bears down on San Diego Unified: Whether to close under-enrolled schools. Whether to hire outside consultants to reform the district. Whether to lay off teachers.

“It says a lot about how they relate to each other,” said teachers union president Camille Zombro. “Are they going to do work, or are they going to fool around deciding who is the board president?”

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.

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