A group critical of the San Diego Unified School District announced today that it is putting together a ballot measure that would expand the school board, adding four people appointed by an independent commission of parents, university leaders and a business representative.

Backers argue that expanding the school board from five to nine with appointees would stabilize and depoliticize a school system they say still fails too many children. San Diego Unified has swung from one reform plan to the next and has had four superintendents in the past five and a half years. But the idea of appointing school board members has been deeply controversial with many teachers, their union and the existing school board, whose members call the idea undemocratic and elitist.

The proposal, put forth by San Diegans 4 Great Schools, a group of parents, business and community leaders who first gathered after the exit of former Superintendent Terry Grier, would also change the election system to ensure that board members are elected exclusively by voters in the individual subdistricts they represent. Currently, candidates run in primaries in one of five subdistricts. In the general election, they are elected from the entire school district.

The ballot measure would also restrict how long school board members can serve, limiting them to three terms of four years. And it would set added requirements on how the board will review and publicize annual plans that schools create on how to improve.

The nine-member commission that would appoint the new school board members would include the leaders of San Diego State University, the University of San Diego, the University of California, San Diego and the San Diego Community College District; the parents who lead four school district committees aimed at the needs of disadvantaged students, English learners, gifted students and students with disabilities; and the head of the education committee of either the Chamber of Commerce or the Economic Development Corp., a seat that would alternate from one group to the other.

David Page, a parent who leads the district committee on disadvantaged students, said the proposal would reduce the impact of special interests and ensure the board included people who understood education.

Scott Himelstein, who organizes the group, said it would need to gather more than 135,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It is unclear when the issue would go before voters; Himelstein said the group is looking toward the next scheduled special election.

Critics of the plan, which has been in the works for months, say it is anti-democratic and aimed simply at disempowering the current school board majority, which tilts toward labor unions. Himelstein denied that the move was aimed at labor unions or the existing school board.

“It’s not about them. We wish them well. We wish them success with our students. … But unless we fix the structural issue, we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes we’ve been making for the next several years,” Himelstein said.

Check back later for more details as I sort through the implications of this proposal.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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