School board member John de Beck is calling for the coastal schools in San Diego Unified to secede into a separate district with its own school board. It is perhaps the most contrarian move in his highly contrarian run: pushing to split from the school district to which he devoted decades of public service and much of his career.
Such a split would be extraordinarily rare and could take years to complete. It would require a petition signed by 25 percent of the registered voters in the desired district, the blessing of the county and state boards of education, and an election. De Beck unveiled the idea Tuesday night in the dim auditorium of Correia Middle School in Point Loma to roughly two dozen parents, principals and school employees and a handful of journalists.
He described San Diego Unified as a “dinosaur” that was nearly impossible to change. Splitting it would cut costs and bring power closer to parents and schools, he argued. School board members would be elected from each “cluster,” the group of schools that feeds into each high school, and would be less vulnerable to “special interests,” he said.
“This is centered around the cluster controlling its own destiny,” de Beck told the crowd.
But he said that he could not make it happen alone — and might not even be part of it because his home is located in a different area of the school district. He called on parents to take up the cause. Some were already excited by that charge, complaining that another round of budget cuts had only convinced them that their voices were diluted or drowned out in San Diego Unified, the second largest school district in the state.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Cindy Edson, a parent at Sunset View Elementary. “We’ve been so restricted from being able to share in the decision-making process.”
No actions have been taken to move forward the idea, which is thus far purely hypothetical. The imagined school district, which de Beck dubbed the San Diego Coastal Unified School District, could range in size between 25,000 and 50,000 students and would include some of the highest achieving schools in wealthier stretches of the city such as Point Loma and La Jolla.
“Our test scores would go down dramatically” if the coastal schools split off, said school board member Katherine Nakamura, who said that she might be interested in joining de Beck on his secession bid. “Students would go with fewer opportunities.”
Larry Shirey, a field representative for the California Department of Education, said the last such secession he could remember happened roughly a decade ago. He estimated that the process could take between three and five years. The bid for independence could be rejected if the proposed school district threatened to cost more money, harmed other school districts or increased racial segregation, a factor that de Beck argued could be avoided by continuing to bus students into the coastal schools from other areas of the city.
It is not the first time that school board members have floated the idea of splitting up San Diego Unified: Shelia Jackson, who represents the southeast areas of the city, has sometimes argued that splitting the southern and northern areas of the school districts would ensure that the needs of students in the southern areas are better met. But she was uneasy about how de Beck had unrolled the ambitious idea, with little outside discussion.
“Do our citizens in San Diego want a divided school district in our city?” she asked. “It doesn’t keep our city focused on all the children. It may start out as one more school district and end up as five or six — or 16.”
And not everyone was convinced that carving up the school district would solve its problems.
“What actually would be created?” parent Julie Zoellin Cramer asked hypothetically. “It might just be another kind of dinosaur.”