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Scott Barnett has staked his campaign for school board on whipping a massive school district into financial shape. His plug is simple: San Diego Unified is badly managed. And he’s the one to fix it.
In his bid to unseat veteran school board member John de Beck, Barnett has billed himself as a budget wonk who can cut through financial jargon, a sensible alternative to the often caustic and controversial de Beck. His unlikely coalition of backers includes typical enemies, as he’s gained support from the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and the conservative Lincoln Club, sitting school board members John Lee Evans and Richard Barrera, and some of the school board’s toughest critics.
Like Barrera and his labor allies, Barnett promises to continue the school district trend toward decentralizing and empowering schools to make their own decisions. Yet he is uneasy with the planned salary hikes for teachers and opposes a new tax for schools — a change of heart that led the teachers union to yank their endorsement from him. He is known for being independent and unpredictable, a Republican who opposed recalling former Gov. Gray Davis and backs gay marriage.
“He’s hard to pigeonhole,” said Lorena Gonzalez, CEO of the Labor Council.
The question is whether Barnett can deliver on his pitch as a budget expert. He is best known as the former head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit that champions efficient government. He has hovered over local politics for decades, advising candidates and criticizing waste. The father of two girls in San Diego schools, he’s good at explaining why he thinks the school district is mismanaged through concrete examples about school lunches and the endless forms parents have to fill out when the school year begins.
In recent years, he has hopscotched from one gig to another, working as a political consultant, starting up his own watchdog group, even penning articles for the San Diego Reader. De Beck argues that Barnett lacks any real chops to dissect school finances and is just angling for higher office.
The incumbent highlights his own degree in business and long tenure on the school board; Barnett dropped out of college and has steered clear of public office since the ‘80s, when he had a stint on the Del Mar City Council at age 21.
He briefly turned to real estate, then political consulting, before spending seven years at the Taxpayers Association from 1995 to 2001. There, Barnett weighed in on county outsourcing and city budgets. He delved into school issues in 1998, when the Taxpayers Association backed a San Diego Unified bond for new schools — but only after pushing for a promise that overdue repairs would also be made. Barnett also led the oversight committee for that school bond and became known for doing his homework and posing good questions.
Barnett also gained a reputation for not toeing the party line, something his fans bring up over and over as an asset. Oddly, de Beck is known for the very same trait.
During the campaign to build a new ballpark in the late 1990s, Barnett argued loudly against a new ballpark even as the Taxpayers board opted to back it.
“Scott questioned all the sunny scenarios. He stuck his neck out and almost got his head cut off,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego and a friend of Barnett’s.
Barnett also put the Taxpayers Association in the public eye, said board member Mark Nelson. He courted television cameras and created its cheeky Golden Watchdog and Fleece Awards, where the group pokes fun at itself and local governments by handing out awards for good and bad government at an annual soiree.
But while the group gained attention and influence, it never weighed in what would become one of the biggest problems in local government in a generation — when the city of San Diego first decided to short its pension system while also granting new benefits to employees.
Ann Parode Dynes, who was on the pension board then, said she implored Barnett to take a hard look, but the group never did.
“He was completely asleep at the switch,” Dynes said.
Barnett said he doesn’t remember hearing from Dynes, but says he got dozens of calls every week and sometimes had to let issues slide. Besides, he said, the city would probably have ignored him. Being ignored is a lament he has about much of his budget work, and the reason he says he’s running now.
It is tough to figure out how Barnett impacted the organization financially. The Taxpayers Association decided not to provide us meeting minutes or tax returns from 1995 to 2001, when Barnett led the group, saying it didn’t want to get involved in a candidate race; nonprofits are only required to provide their last three tax returns.
Barnett then bounced to the Lincoln Club, where he promoted conservative causes; he said he felt uncomfortable because it was more partisan than he was. After he left, Barnett picked up political consulting again, shepherding unsuccessful campaigns for conservative candidates Phil Thalheimer and Peter Q. Davis.
Barnett then launched a new group, TaxpayersAdvocate.org.
Billed as a watchdog organization, it quickly gained media attention by issuing financial studies on local issues, some penned by Barnett, some done by outside analysts, on everything from whether Solana Beach was in good shape to the impact of a community college bond. Because it was a private group, it did not reveal who paid for its studies.
Barnett readily says that people have hired him for political reasons, but argues that what matters are the facts, and that he has never doctored them.
In one of his most famous reports four years ago, Barnett concluded Chula Vista was “spending like drunken sailors.” City officials dismissed the report as misleading, a political cudgel to help Cheryl Cox become mayor of Chula Vista. Barnett is mum on who paid for it. But Chula Vista ended up having to slash its budget just a year later, strained by promises it made to employees.
Barnett also worked part-time as a press advisor to conservative Assemblyman Joel Anderson. He taught a college class on San Diego politics, adding “educator” to his ballot statement because of it. He dabbled in journalism. And he kept up consulting, guiding everyone from Alpine residents worried about county planning to El Cajon leaders concerned about their redevelopment agency.
“Scott’s not a CPA. But we weren’t looking for that,” said Bill Wells, the El Cajon city councilman who pushed for the analysis. “I was looking for somebody who understands how to cut through the bureaucracy and get to the meat of things.”
But while Barnett analyzed budgets, there are signs that he himself has struggled financially. He recently was taken to small claims court by a former girlfriend, Michele Gillespie, who gave him $5,000 while they were dating and said his payments lagged. Barnett said he readily agreed to repay her and had already given her half of the money. The court ordered him last month to pay the remaining $2,500.
Taking on so many different jobs and serving so many different political masters has also left Barnett fending off the perception that he is a political opportunist, undercutting his reputation as a maverick. For instance, he threw his support to a feeble bid to allow development on a marine terminal after being paid to consult the campaign; Barnett said he genuinely believed it would benefit taxpayers.
He moved from University City to Little Italy, where he could run against de Beck, just before launching his school board run. Barnett says he moved first and was urged to run later, but de Beck and his allies seized on it as a sign that Barnett would use the school board as a stepping stone, something he denies.
“I think he’s just trying to launch a political career before he gets any older,” said Jess Durfee, chair of the county Democratic Party, which has endorsed de Beck. “He blows with the wind.”
Barnett says the school board offers him a chance to get things done, instead of just telling people what’s going wrong.
“Most of what I’ve done in my career is to tear away layers of government,” he said. “And every layer you can peel away to see what’s going on — maybe you can see a way to do things better or more efficiently.”