Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009 | The business leaders of San Diego are tiptoeing back into school system politics, prodded by the news that Superintendent Terry Grier is leaving for Houston.

Several business leaders have added their names to a petition pleading with the school board to keep Grier if they can. While the petition seems unlikely to succeed — Grier has all but pledged himself to Houston — it is one of the first signs that the business world, distanced from San Diego Unified after the bruising fights under past Superintendent Alan Bersin, may start speaking up when it comes to education.

Former leaders of the Business Roundtable for Education say there is a buzz among moguls about the need for something to change. They worry that with Grier exiting, San Diego Unified is now tilted too far towards labor, left with a school board majority that was backed by the teachers union to fill the top job. One alarmed businessman is even airing the remote idea that the mayor should take over the schools.

“Now they’ve got their heads up,” said Ginger Hovenic, formerly the president and CEO of the Roundtable, which has fallen dormant since Bersin left in 2005. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve got to look at what’s happening in San Diego Unified again.’”

They are not the only group pushing for a shift in San Diego Unified, with or without Grier. Parents, university leaders and elected officials have also signed on, signaling their aggravation with the revolving door for leaders in the school district. Some are even talking about recalling the president of the school board to change the political tide. Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, said the movement to keep Grier is far bigger than business alone.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near the stage where there was once a Business Roundtable for Education,” Himelstein said. “The main difference is this is not a formal group. It’s a much broader group of people.”

But the business leaders carry the financial heft to alter campaigns and organize quickly. They can be more politically powerful than parents, whose interests are sometimes narrowly confined to their schools or neighborhoods and whose time is divided. They already have vast networks to plumb. Advocates say businesses have a vested interest in schools as the source of their future workforce — and an asset or a liability when urging workers to come to San Diego from elsewhere.

“Business is the most natural counterweight to teachers unions,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They have relationships. They have an existing infrastructure in which to organize. It’d be terrific if all these parents had the time and energy to get up and go door to door and organize — but they’ve also got jobs.”

Reviving the business interest in schools is bound to stir up old passions and resentments, and the path is strewn with obstacles, from a dismal economy to bad timing. The Chamber of Commerce and its Business Roundtable for Education became players to watch in the 1990s, when they first waded into school politics. Alarmed by a teachers strike and disillusioned with the quality of the schools, they helped push a new school board into place in 1996 that eventually picked Bersin as its superintendent.

Businesses backed Bersin as he unrolled his controversial reforms, which focused squarely on literacy and were centrally driven, making uniform changes throughout the school system. They flexed their muscles to bolster school board candidates, sometimes winning, sometimes not. They even tried to start up a charter school.

After Bersin left, however, they largely fell silent. Bersin had earned the enmity of the unions and a swath of community and parent groups who saw him as too heavy handed. His successor, Carl Cohn, seemed less exciting and innovative to business leaders. Bersin’s reforms were dismantled one by one.

Electoral losses also alarmed the business leaders, who had earlier pushed a candidate to replace incumbent Frances O’Neill Zimmerman — and lost. Attorney Tyler Cramer, another former leader of the Business Roundtable, said his peers were already leery of getting involved at the ballot box after their earlier push to elect Ed Lopez against a popular black educator, Ed Fletcher. Business leaders eventually had to mend fences with the black community, Cramer said, and few were happy about the perceptions.

“It was like Obama having a beer with that policeman,” Cramer said. “The last thing the business community needs or wants is to be perceived doing something on racial grounds.”

Business had gotten a bad rap too. Rev. George Walker Smith once told the Union-Tribune that “the chamber needs now to go back into the closet and stay there.” School board member John de Beck still invokes business as a pernicious “special interest” that tries to tip the political balance. And Zimmerman, who overcame business opposition to win re-election, is deeply critical of business sway in education, from the chamber to national organizations run by Bill Gates or Eli Broad.

“These are not people who give a damn about public education,” Zimmerman said. “They want to exploit it and privatize all the services. I don’t see them as any less venal than the unions.”

Businesses remain active in school philanthropy and the chamber still has an education committee, said Chairman Ben Haddad. Construction companies donate heavily to help pass school bonds to build and renovate schools. And there are individual business leaders who have thrown their support to school initiatives: Robert Price has poured millions into City Heights schools through his charity, for instance, though he says it isn’t really a business effort.

But the business world has largely shied away from the political battles such as who will sit on the school board and internal debates such as how stimulus money will be spent.

“They got burned,” said Mitz Lee, a former school board member and Bersin critic who has reached out to businesses to restart their efforts. “I told them, ‘That’s not an excuse.’”

Whether the furor over Grier leaving will be a turning point for the business community and their involvement in school politics remains to be seen. Grier connected with the business world, and his departure has touched a nerve. Cramer once likened him to a talented CEO with a sharp focus on results. The clashes between Grier, the teachers union, and school board members elected with backing from the union have drawn their interest and their sympathy. Haddad worried that the next superintendent might be “a lapdog for certain special interests,” namely unions.

Haddad, Hovenic and Cramer say that there are new rumblings around the need to get involved, a sense that something must change. But what that will look like is unclear. They have no chosen candidates, no organized group, not even a name. And the challenges before them are numerous.

Changing the school board is a possibility — but a distant one. Political power is now firmly with the school board majority that has often been at odds with Grier. They were elected last fall, which means that while school board elections will come around again next year, the balance of power cannot be tipped until 2012. Others are floating the idea of eliminating the school board entirely.

One businessman, Rod Dammeyer, has been pushing for the mayor to take control of the schools, as has happened in New York and Boston. The mayor would then choose the school board or the superintendent. Dammeyer sent a letter to the school board earlier this summer pressing them to make major changes and citing dire statistics about the schools. Yet even Dammeyer admits that the possibility of mayoral control seems distant. Mayor Jerry Sanders hasn’t sought out the added challenges of running the school system, a burden on top of leading the financially strapped city.

The economy could also put a damper on business’ enthusiasm for spending time or money on the school system; Cramer said some companies are just trying to avoid bankruptcy. And the memories of the Bersin-era battles could be enough to put other would-be-business-activists off from the idea. It is still a sensitive topic, even among some of the most diplomatic observers of the schools.

“Any time businesses get involved, I think safeguards need to be in place to make sure this isn’t somebody pushing an agenda over someone else’s agenda,” said Dan McAllister, county treasurer and tax collector and leader of the school district audit committee. “I’m hopeful we can move beyond that.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And 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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