John de Beck has the longest memory and the loosest lips on the San Diego Unified school board. He called a new way of budgeting “cockamamie.” He dubbed virtual gym classes “ridiculous.” Fans who have helped elect him over and over say they love his straight talk, even when it stings.

The retired teacher has spent almost two decades — nearly one out of every four days of his life — representing the coastal stretches of the district from La Jolla to Point Loma to downtown. Elections are old hat to him. He has a stack of campaign signs in the trunk of his Prius, a rolling election headquarters.

But this time around, de Beck has earned the enmity of the teachers union, his former ally and a proven force at the ballot box. A new challenger has won the teachers’ backing and argues that for all his talk and all his ideas, de Beck has achieved little because of his spats and sharp tongue.

“Anything he raises now is like a lead balloon,” said Scott Barnett, a financial consultant and former head of the county Taxpayers Association who argues that he’ll make sure the school district runs more efficiently. “He likes to be the violent, vocal minority. It’s not productive. It’s just throwing bombs.”

His personality has become almost as big of an issue as his politics. De Beck is known for floating bold, sometimes radical ideas like splitting up the school district. Some of his ideas, such as giving more power to parents at the groups of schools that feed into each high school, have slowly gained traction. Others have fizzled. His website is loaded with theories on stopping social promotion and saving historic art. He sees himself as an idea man, whether or not those ideas fly.

“If I raise ideas that don’t take hold,” de Beck said, “that doesn’t mean they’re bad ideas.”

Barnett is one of two candidates who are taking on de Beck this spring, but the other one is actually a de Beck fan. School psychologist Michelle Crisci said she originally thought that de Beck wasn’t going to run. Now she hopes that by sticking in the race, she can knock Barnett out of the running. Only two candidates will move on from the June primary.

“My hat is in the ring to make sure on the November ballot that it’s John and myself,” Crisci said.

Barnett is a Republican and de Beck is a Democrat, but they agree on a lot of things in the largely nonpartisan world of school politics. Both are worried about how San Diego Unified will pay for a promised raise for teachers years from now. Barnett said based on what he knew at the time, he would have opposed a labor pact on school construction, just as de Beck did.

Both say the school district was right to not join Race to the Top, a competition for more stimulus money. Both want to give schools more local power over their budgets. And both have been critical of labor.

Seven years ago, Barnett was quoted in San Diego CityBeat saying that labor unions are “basically about enriching one class of society at the expense of the citizens in general.”

Yet Barnett has won the teachers union support.

Barnett says he wouldn’t say that about labor unions now, but was speaking for the conservative Lincoln Club at the time. His push to cut waste in the massive school district, he says, can only help employees by redirecting money back to classrooms.

Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, said they may not always agree with Barnett, but he’s someone they can work with.

“He’s not going to run out and say nasty, untruthful things about us on talk radio,” Zombro said.

Political consultant Bob Nelson, who has talked with the teachers union about working this race, said that while it might seem like a classic case of politics making strange bedfellows, Barnett isn’t a garden variety Republican. He leans left on social issues and helped run a campaign for money to renovate schools.

“And while he’s been a tax skeptic,” Nelson said, “he’s never been a tax cynic.”

This election will test whether voters still see de Beck as a vital dissenting voice or just so much sound and fury on the school board. Unseating a school board member is usually an uphill battle because voters tend not to pay much attention to the race.

But things didn’t go well for the last school board member who rubbed the union the wrong way: Mitz Lee voted for teacher layoffs and lost her seat to psychologist John Lee Evans two years ago. The teachers union spent nearly $400,000 on mailers and television ads that skewered Lee over layoffs. Whether they’ll devote the same time and money this time is unknown.

“This will be the hardest campaign he’s ever run,” predicted Bruce McGirr, director of the union that represents principals and other school managers. “But it’s his to lose. John would have to do something really controversial or really stupid to tip the balance.”

De Beck was long known as a labor ally on the school board, but in recent years, the former union leader has become one of its most bitter foes.

While cuts have strained relationships between the union and the whole school board, de Beck has clashed with them most publicly and most often. He argued that the school district should throw in the towel on bargaining with teachers and impose cuts. He argued that the union had sacrificed the youngest teachers when they agreed to furloughs. And he lobbed the toxic charge that they didn’t care about kids.

His rocky relationship with the teachers union only adds to his appeal for some voters, including some of his former opponents. Local Democrats have thrown him their support anyway. And de Beck has earned loyalty from other observers simply by showing up, asking questions and being a stickler for details.

“I may not always agree with him,” said Bob Raines, a retiree who once oversaw testing in San Diego Unified and donated to de Beck. “But he’s done his homework.”

Barnett contends that de Beck has just been “a cranky guy on the deck of the Titanic.” He believes that his financial savvy and experience, such as sitting on the independent committee that scrutinized how money was spent during the last school construction bond, will help him tighten up the school district.

“Scott knows numbers backwards and forwards,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the county Republican Party. “John does not have the wherewithal to analyze the budgets the way that Scott does.”

Nelson said it’s a tough year to be an incumbent, which could hurt de Beck. But Barnett has some hefty hurdles too: He got into the race only two months ago and had raised less than half as much as de Beck earlier this year, even including a $1,600 loan to himself. And he isn’t an educator. De Beck argues that he’s just as much of an expert on budgets as Barnett — but he can also go toe-to-toe with staff on instruction.

“Ninety percent of the time, other school board members just say, ‘What do the staff think?’” de Beck said. “I challenge them to have ideas.”

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

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