School board President Richard Barrera laid out his vision for the future of San Diego Unified in the annual State of the District address tonight at Cherokee Point Elementary. Here were some of the highlights:

• Barrera said that schools clearly need to improve, but he drew a bright line between the “corporate model” of school reform, which he linked to No Child Left Behind and the reforms of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, and the “community model” he favors.

What does he mean? Barrera defined the corporate model as change that comes from the top, by setting easy-to-measure standards for which local schools and teachers are accountable. It punishes schools where students fail on standardized tests and rewards schools where they do well.

In contrast, Barrera described the community model as being driven by teachers, parents and others close to schools. It is built on strong relationships between people in a school community, stability and small class sizes where teachers can tailor their teaching to each student, Barrera said.

That has worked in local schools, Barrera argued, and the “big ideas” from corporate reformers haven’t. He highlighted our recent article about Euclid Elementary as an example.

“The community model might not be flashy, and it might mean that nobody gets to be hailed as a savior,” he said, “but if we want our kids to have a real shot at a bright future, the community model is change that we can believe in.”

• Barrera decried the budget cuts handed down by state legislators and argued that California should tax oil production and alcohol more heavily to help schools.

He also mentioned that the school board might put an “emergency education fee” on the November ballot to bring in more local revenue. This is the parcel tax that the school district hired consultant Larry Remer to research. It would take a two-thirds majority to pass, Barrera said.

But Barrera also noted that eventually, the legislature has to restore money to public schools. He estimated that eventually San Diego Unified will get an annual funding increase of $225 million. Money like that could create class sizes of 20 children per teacher in every single grade, he said.

• Barrera recounted his maddening experiences with the bureaucratic dysfunction of the school district, such as when he said the school board discovered the transportation department regularly overspent its budget by $7 million to $8 million annually.

“Decades of bureaucratic waste and neglect was enabled by a culture of arrogance in the central office” that allowed ideas for streamlining to go ignored, Barrera said.

That is changing to a “culture of ownership” where ideas are valued, Barrera said. He touted a new way of budgeting as an example. San Diego Unified still ended up making painful cuts such as shortening the school year by five days, Barrera said, but the school district was able to keep class sizes intact.

• Barrera’s speech was full of memorable anecdotes, but my favorite was when Barrera went off his script and started talking about his experiences as a community organizer in Arkansas, where he met a minister who made and sold whiskey “in the informal economy.”

As Barrera recounted it, the minister used to say, “Vision without action is hallucination!” Barrera said he replied, “Reverend, you would know!” His point — and his final argument — was that his vision can’t happen without the whole community, through volunteering, lobbying and backing the parcel tax.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can read the full text of the speech or check out the video on the school district website.


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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