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Philanthropists, parents and business leaders upset with the state of San Diego Unified schools have been quietly talking about whether a bigger school board could be better for schools.
The budding plan would add four new members to the board. Unlike the existing five elected members, they would be chosen by an outside group that could include the leaders of local universities, parent groups, labor unions and business chiefs, among others.
Scott Himelstein, who organizes the informal group and leads an education policy center at the University of San Diego, declined to talk about the idea and how far it has gone. He stressed that the coalition of local leaders has no “definitive strategy” at this point.
But numerous people close to the talks were familiar with the same controversial idea. Pollsters have already been quizzing parents about who they’d want to be in the group that chooses the new school board members — and who they wouldn’t. And its plans seem to be advancing.
The coalition has hired political consultant Tom Shepard, for instance. Several sources said the group has also hired a public relations firm, Katz & Associates, and is tossing around potential names like San Diegans 4 Great Schools to start drumming up donations.
While the group says it is merely exploring ideas to help schools, the fledgling plan is also a sign of critics’ growing discontent with the existing school board, which swung toward labor two years ago. They believe expanding and altering the board would help depoliticize it and prevent power from tilting rapidly from one political force to another, a common phenomenon on small boards.
“Obviously if this group liked what the school board was doing, they wouldn’t try to change it,” said Bruce McGirr, who directs the union for principals and other administrators. Himelstein met with him to talk about the idea. “He and his group seem to feel that this school board is influenced by a certain group within the city — and I’m sure he’s talking about unions.”
Critics blame those board members for driving away former Superintendent Terry Grier, who favored reforms disliked by unions. It has taken a decentralized, grassroots tack on school reform that skeptics say isn’t really reform at all. And like school boards before it, it has been criticized for meddling too much in the day-to-day management of the schools.
“They micromanage. They can’t hang on to a good superintendent. They all seem to be pawns of the teachers union,” said Bill Lynch, who started a foundation for children. He went to one of the early meetings but has not been involved with the group recently. “It’s pretty disappointing.”
The coalition first gathered at the University of San Diego after Grier announced he would leave last year. It urged the school board to woo him back. When that failed, the group stuck together. Its members, who range from Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs to parent leader David Page to Price Charities Executive Vice President Tad Parzen, are united by a sense that something needs to change in the school district.
“We’re genuinely trying to assess: Are these problems somehow unique among school districts? Is it a result of governance or culture?” said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and a member of the group. “It’s people that are interested in turning what appears to be a dysfunctional system into something that would serve students a lot better.”
Last year, businessman and group member Rod Dammeyer paid for a top-to-bottom study of the school district that was meant to mobilize people to seek change. But while the report pointed out problems from finances to test scores, it didn’t point to solutions, leaving the group in an uncertain spot.
“I don’t think any reasonable person could debate that things are OK,” Dammeyer said last fall when the report was leaked to voiceofsandiego.org. “They’re not even close to OK. And they’re not getting better.”
The coalition is slated to release an updated version of the same report next week. Zeroing in on school district problems could be an opening salvo in a longer battle to alter how the school district is run.
Grier had openly touted a larger board, which would be less likely to swing one way or the other in a single election. And while elected school boards are the norm, a small but growing crop of urban school districts elsewhere in the country, from Chicago to New York, has dumped elected boards for appointed ones. Advocates say it can depoliticize the school board by putting experts in charge and preventing interest groups from controlling school elections; critics call it undemocratic and elitist.
Doing so would take a campaign in San Diego: Deputy City Attorney Sharon Spivak said voters would have to agree to expand the school board because its makeup is set out in the city charter.
Time is tight, so Himelstein and his group are unlikely to put the idea on the November ballot. They could, however, start gathering signatures for the next citywide election.
Expanding and altering the school board would likely face stiff opposition from members of the existing board and the teachers union, many of whom see it as an outright, ideological attack.
“You have a bunch of secret meetings with business elite and they make a plan to take democracy from the school board,” said Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “I don’t know how you make that look good.”
School board member John de Beck called it “another downtown grab,” likening it to battles between business interests and unions during the thorny and deeply controversial superintendency of Alan Bersin. Though the group includes Bersin foes and people far from business, it may struggle to shed that label. It has met for months behind closed doors and been tight-lipped about its plans, even as pollsters air them to voters and Himelstein floats the idea with the principals union and other groups.