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A coalition of philanthropists, parents, academics and business leaders aired an updated study of San Diego Unified schools at a press conference today, touting it as a call to action to change the way a “failing school system” is governed.

The University of San Diego study, commissioned by businessman Rod Dammeyer, is likely to be the opening salvo in a longer battle to alter how the school district is run. It draws no conclusions. But simply by airing data on test scores and finances and diagnosing the schools as failing, the group is taking its first public step toward a more concerted, more specific campaign.

The report was built largely on publicly available data from the California Department of Education from 2002 to 2009. Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has had little involvement in the schools so far, attended the event, calling the report “cause for great concern.” Its findings were mixed, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes striking.

For instance, the report noted that on a national math and reading exam, at least two-thirds of students tested last year were still falling short. Achievement gaps have grown between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates. The group argued the test scores were even more disappointing in light of increased per-student spending. However, scores have improved over time, and the report also noted bright spots, such as a decreased dropout rate.

Sanders said he supported efforts to reexamine how the school district is governed, aligning him with the new group. But he did not invoke the idea of a larger school board, an idea the group has quietly discussed. It was the first public event for the coalition, which includes dozens of members ranging from Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs to retired educator Linda Sturak to San Diego State professor emeritus Alberto Ochoa.

The coalition, newly named San Diegans 4 Great Schools, has quietly weighed the idea of adding four appointed members to the school board, which currently has five elected members. Doing so would require voters to opt to change the city charter.

But that idea was not in the spotlight today and the group leader, Scott Himelstein, stressed that it had no finished plans. The group is seeking public input on the report and ideas on how to change the system, asking people to weigh in on its website, www.sd4greatschools.org.

Nonetheless, Himelstein and others said their ideas for change were focused squarely on the issue of “governance” — a term that boils down to how the school board is selected and how it works.

While critics of San Diegans 4 Great Schools say it is merely trying to take power from the current board, which tilts toward labor, group members say the problem is systemic and bigger than the existing board. Small, elected boards can shift power easily, leading to dramatic changes in direction for the district. Himelstein described the system as an outmoded and susceptible to “special interest influences.”

“Any further delays to improved governance are a disservice … to our children,” Dammeyer said at the press conference. He later added, “The results are poor and drastic change needs to be put in place so they could get better.”

An earlier version of the study was shared with San Diego Unified leaders last year. The new report was not given to them beforehand. School board members Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans attended the press conference, arguing they’re already headed the right direction and urging the group to work with them on their existing reform plans.

“We all know where they’re going with this,” said school board President Richard Barrera, who did not attend the press conference. “They don’t believe that through democratic elections, they’ll have the power to implement their ideas. … So they inundate people with images of the school district as failing.”

Dammeyer said the group would likely take its next steps in the fall, after hearing back from the public about the report and gathering more ideas. Himelstein has said it is unlikely the group would put a measure on the November ballot, but it could start mobilizing for an election further in the future.

— EMILY ALPERT

Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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