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The San Diego Unified school board primary is often sleepy and overlooked, assumed to be an easy win for incumbents. But voters upended that idea in the Tuesday primary, putting one school board member in a neck-and-neck race and threatening to oust another from the race completely.

Katherine Nakamura trailed behind middle school math teacher Kevin Beiser and is still battling for second place with businessman Stephen Rosen. She trailed Rosen by just 59 votes Wednesday, with roughly 160,000 ballots still to be counted in all races across the county.

Nakamura is in jeopardy of losing altogether, because only the top two contenders move on to the November election. In the other race, fellow school board member John de Beck edged out budget consultant Scott Barnett, but will still face him again in November. It was the tightest primary that de Beck, a retired teacher with a contrarian streak, has ever faced since being elected nearly two decades ago.

The results stunned many political veterans, though parents said they weren’t surprised. Pundits say the tight races are a clear sign that voters are dissatisfied with the district. That is no secret as the school board does the unpopular and grueling work of slashing the budget for the third year running.

But it is unclear what kind of change voters are seeking. Some believe voters were tired of the whole school board and were hungry for any change. Others counter that they were specifically annoyed with the board dissidents, de Beck and Nakamura, who have frequently been at odds with the teachers union and the rest of the school board over balancing the budget.

The results pose a political paradox: While many voters backed fresh blood for the school board over de Beck and Nakamura, several of those challengers are philosophically in tune with the rest of the board.

“I do think people are looking for something to change,” said Michelle Crisci, a school psychologist who ran and lost against de Beck and Barnett. “But they don’t know what it is.”

De Beck chalked up the narrowness of his win to being “lazy” in the primary election. Nakamura also said she spent little time on the race, choosing to focus instead on the budget crunch and superintendent search. Opponents complained it was difficult to get her to debates. That left the field open for new candidates to get their names out and spread their messages. And they did.

Beiser led an energetic and focused campaign that emphasized his expertise as a math teacher. He snapped up endorsements from Democratic politicians and clubs. He raised more money than Nakamura and raised it earlier, blanketing the city with yard signs.

“He was very sharp,” said Darryl Smith, a Tierrasanta parent who voted for Beiser. “He’s got some real sound ideas. Katherine didn’t impress me. … She couldn’t give me the time of day.”

Where Beiser nudged Nakamura from the left, Rosen brought an attack from further right. He campaigned as a financial reformer, criticizing Nakamura for devoting school construction money to the schoobrary. But Rosen was slower to expand beyond his Scripps Ranch base and got fewer donations.

Nakamura supporter Scott Himelstein, who leads an education policy center at the University of San Diego, believes she and de Beck were swept up in voter frustration with the school district. Schools have suffered year after year of budget cuts. It’s had three permanent superintendents in the last five years.

“Who does the public take their blame out on?” Himelstein asked.

Nakamura and de Beck both tend to be in the minority on the school board on budget issues, splitting from other board members sympathetic to labor. Both voted against a labor pact on school construction. Both argued for cutting employee salaries to save money.

Critics say voters aren’t mistakenly blaming de Beck and Nakamura for bigger problems or wrongly lumping them in with the rest of the school board. They argue that it is exactly their dissenting, sometimes unpopular choices that have hurt them in this race.

“People aren’t saying, ‘Throw out the bums, whoever they are,’” said Bob Nelson, a political consultant who has worked with the teachers union in the past. “They’re paying close attention.”

Barnett, for instance, has criticized de Beck for floating ideas but failing to see them through, largely because his frank and sometimes brash style has alienated board members, unions and others. Even de Beck fans like Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a former trustee, say those attacks have hit home.

“There is fatigue with Mr. de Beck,” she said. “He is by far the most imaginative and intellectually nimble person on that board. But he has this style and people get sick of it.”

Barnett and Beiser are largely in tune with the board majority of Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson. Both have stressed small classes and criticized teacher layoffs. Both emphasize using budget savings to give more funding to classrooms. Barnett got backing from the teachers union and Beiser didn’t, but being a teacher himself could win him the same points.

The fall election could be different: Zimmerman, for instance, was outvoted in the primary and still won her election a decade ago.

Heavier Republican turnout in this race may have helped Barnett, a Republican, and Rosen, a decline-to-state voter who falls to the right of Nakamura. That same tilt is not expected in the fall election. School board candidates had to compete only in smaller sub-districts in this election, but in November they will have to sway voters in the entire school district. That will take more money and more name recognition.

And if Nakamura is indeed bumped out by Rosen, voters in San Diego Unified will have to figure out exactly what kind of change they do want, as he and Beiser offer up two competing visions of change.

“It’s about being fed up with the status quo,” Rosen said. “There’s this general mood that, ‘Hey, we’re not happy with the way things are.’”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas

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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