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Katherine Nakamura has often championed the kind of motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff that causes little ruckus on the school board: She worked on a more readable budget that parents could understand.
She campaigned hard for money to renovate and repair schools. She backs successful charter schools. She even championed the marching band and pushed to keep giving students gym credit for the class.
“Polarization makes me crazy,” she said. “My goal is to bring the entire community together.”
But Nakamura hasn’t been able to avoid it. She has sided with some of the most controversial school chiefs in recent history. She has become a dissenting voice on the school board on labor and budget issues, which has already split some Democrats away from the Democratic candidate.
And the budget cuts have been merciless for incumbents — period. That could make her vulnerable, critics and backers alike say, as she runs for her third term on the San Diego Unified board, a normally safe spot.
Sitting school board members are usually difficult to unseat, largely because people pay little attention to the races. The biggest advantage for Nakamura is a simple one: People know her. The mother of two has represented the northeastern stretches of San Diego Unified — Del Cerro, Serra Mesa, Tierrasanta and part of City Heights — for more than seven years.
But last election cycle proved that incumbents could be unseated, when John Lee Evans pushed out Mitz Lee with union help. Nakamura sided with Lee back then to move toward teacher layoffs — and she is facing the same furor over that choice.
Nakamura, formerly an attorney and a university administrator, first joined the board in 2002 in the middle of a tempest over Superintendent Alan Bersin, whose aggressive reforms were criticized as too prescriptive and limiting for teachers.
She won a vacant seat over a Bersin critic who had union support, pegging herself as a moderate but steady advocate for the reforms. Teachers didn’t take a side when she ran again four years later, but regional labor leaders campaigned against her Republican opponent.
She later became a fervent supporter of Superintendent Terry Grier, who was criticized by labor for unrolling changes too quickly and without getting teachers on board.
But when Lee lost her election, the school board shifted. The new majority shared many of the unions’ worries about Grier. Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson also steered clear of layoffs, seeking other cuts.
Nakamura has often been a dissenting voice as the new board pushes out new ideas, from decentralizing school decisions to opening up the superintendent search to the public, but she has been willing to join them on some fronts, such as trying out a new way of budgeting.
“This isn’t a monarchy,” Nakamura said. “It’s about three votes. It’s about consensus.”
Labor leaders slam her for having a “sky-is-falling mentality” while other board members have sought — and found — less painful ways to balance the books.
Nakamura, whose mother was a teacher, decried a proposed salary cut for teachers as being far too deep. But that has hardly endeared her to labor: She voted against a labor pact on the school renovation bond, for example, and won’t rule out layoffs this year.
Even the smaller, seemingly uncontroversial battles that Nakamura relishes can seem like mere pet issues to labor leaders.
“She is so totally disconnected from the work that educators do,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union.
Nakamura currently faces two challengers from her own political party — the Democrats — both of whom are arguing that the shabby status quo has to change, especially when it comes to the budget and how it is cobbled together.
“I think she’s vulnerable,” said Bob Nelson, a political consultant who ran campaigns for the teachers union two years ago. “But to be fair to all of the incumbents, it’s a tough time to be an incumbent.”
The question is what people and groups will put the time — and money — into a race that isn’t likely to tip the balance of power. Only two out of the five school board members are up for election.
Foes of a labor pact on the school renovation and construction bond are furious at the other three members, so there may be little point in weighing in during this election to back Nakamura; the same goes for many business and academic leaders who bemoaned losing the last superintendent.
But budget woes raise the stakes for voters who might otherwise tune out.
“People who aren’t typically as involved may do so in the hopes of getting support for their program — gifted and talented education, English language learners, all the music and visual arts,” said Scott Himelstein, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego. “I think Katherine Nakamura has done a good job. I think she’s been a more independent voice on the board. But I think she will have to work hard” in this election.
Early endorsements from Democratic clubs have gone to one of Nakamura’s competitors, Kevin Beiser, a middle school math teacher.
While Nakamura has taken liberal stands — she once spurred a school board resolution to apologize to folk singer Pete Seeger for pushing him to sign a loyalty oath half a century ago — she is criticized for not being consistently progressive, especially on workers’ issues.
The larger, countywide Democratic Party has held off on deciding who will get its endorsement.
“She’s lukewarm on labor,” said Larry Baza, president of the San Diego Democratic Club, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political group. It endorsed Beiser this year. “She hasn’t been a part of the change that’s gone on since Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans were elected.”
The flip side of that coin is that opponents and skeptics of the new board, particularly union critics, believe that Nakamura has been a saving grace, making what they believe to be prudent and unpopular choices that the rest of the school board is loath to pursue.
“Does that mean she’s not progressive — because she put students’ needs over saving jobs?” asked Jacqueline Nevels, a retired principal and a member of the La Jolla Democratic Club. “I don’t agree with that.”
Nakamura argues that the budget is far clearer and trimmer than when she joined the board. Business operations are becoming much smoother now than in the past, as the school district installs new systems to better track its employees and their costs. But both Beiser and another challenger, Stephen Rosen, are talking up their business expertise — Rosen as a business owner, Beiser as a former manager at Target and T.J. Maxx — as an edge over Nakamura in the crisis. Change alone is appealing right now.
“People are looking for something different,” said Debbie O’Toole, a parent leader who is not endorsing anyone in the school board race. “A way to do things differently.”