A group dissatisfied with the San Diego Unified School District kicked off a campaign today to expand the school board from five to nine members, arguing that the expansion would stabilize and depoliticize a school system they argue still fails too many children.

Its idea is to add four new school board members, chosen by a committee of parents, university leaders and a business representative. While several other large urban school systems have allowed the mayor to appoint the whole school board, a hybrid system is a much more unusual idea.

“A school district must change and adapt over time, abandoning what no longer works, even if it worked before,” said Scott Himelstein, president of the group, standing before the historic Old Town schoolhouse that was once the first school in San Diego.

San Diegans 4 Great Schools is made up of parents, business and community leaders who first gathered after the exit of former Superintendent Terry Grier. After nearly a year of meetings behind closed doors, the group came out in July to declare that the school board needed an overhaul — but the group did not air a plan until now.

Fans said the plan would avoid dramatic shifts in direction at San Diego Unified, something it has suffered in the past as elections tip the balance of power on the school board. It has swung from one reform plan to the next and has had four superintendents in the past five and a half years.

State test scores have steadily improved and are now among the best among California urban districts, but nearly half of San Diego Unified students still fall short on those tests. Black and Latino students do worse.

“I see firsthand in our community how our public schools are failing,” said Bishop Roy Dixon, pastor of the Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ, who helped start a charter school.

The idea is deeply controversial with the teachers union and the existing board. School board President Richard Barrera argued that the school board is already seeking stability through a new, decentralized reform plan and called the idea “undemocratic.”

“Why should any special group of people have the ability to take decisions away from voters?” Barrera argued.

Under the plan, four new school board members would be appointed by a committee that includes 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, along with the parents who lead school district committees on the needs of disadvantaged students, English learners, gifted students and students with disabilities. It would also include an education representative from either the Chamber of Commerce or the Economic Development Corp., alternating from one group to the other.

Himelstein said the campaign is not aimed at labor unions or the existing school board, but San Diegans 4 Great Schools includes critics who complain that the school board now is too dominated by the teachers union. Those members decry the fact that the district turned away from Race to the Top, a national competition for stimulus money, because it emphasized tying teacher evaluation to test scores.

“This district is always full of plans,” said David Page, who leads a parent committee on disadvantaged students. Under the plan, Page or whoever replaces him would sit on the committee that chooses four school board members. “The problem is execution.”

Small boards can swing more easily than larger ones, and while most school boards in California have five members, almost all of the large school districts elsewhere in the country have larger boards with seven or nine trustees. Page said a bigger board would reduce the impact of special interests and that appointing some of the board members would ensure a spot for education experts.

Changing how the school board is chosen means changing the city charter, which sets out how the school board is elected. More than half of city San Diego voters would need to agree. That includes voters who live in the city but are outside of the school district. The city and district have different boundaries.

Himelstein said San Diegans 4 Great Schools is looking toward the next scheduled special election or the regular election in June 2012. He said it would need to gather more than 135,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

The plan would also change the election system so that board members are elected exclusively by voters in the smaller subdistricts they represent.

Currently, school board candidates run in primaries in smaller areas, called subdistricts, then campaign for votes at large from the entire school district. That system is being challenged elsewhere for drowning out minority voices, which is why some local school districts are switching to elect board members from smaller areas.

The ballot measure would also restrict how long school board members can serve, limiting them to three terms of four years each. And it would add new rules on how the school board will review and publicize annual plans that schools create on how to improve, including airing them at City Council.

Barrera said he could readily back term limits and subdistrict elections, but balked at the idea of appointed school board members.

Including more changes in the plan, such as term limits and subdistrict elections, was meant to court voters who said they wanted more accountability from the school board, said political consultant Tom Shepard, who is advising the group.

But Erik Bruvold, who leads a think tank at National University, said the package of ideas put forward by San Diegans 4 Great Schools seems contradictory and poorly thought-out.

“They say they want to depoliticize the effort, they go to district-only elections. They say they want more stability, they’ve got term limits,” Bruvold said. He argued that including the parent leaders on the committee that chooses school board members would only end up politicizing the parent committees. Moreover, he said, more affluent parents are more likely to serve on those groups. “How is that fair?”

Labor unions have pegged it as a power grab aimed at disempowering the current school board majority, which tilts toward labor, and have tagged the group as an elite group of business leaders, lumping them in with “downtowners” who backed a controversial former superintendent, Alan Bersin.

“They’re attempting to take over the board and we don’t know why,” asked Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union.

The group has been funded by two business leaders, Rod Dammeyer and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, and includes former Bersin supporters; Himelstein himself worked closely with Bersin years ago. But the group also includes parents, community leaders and Bersin opponents such as Page and retired school administrator Linda Sturak. Himelstein has been at pains to avoid the business label.

Shepard joked that if it was a business measure, it had done a terrible job, since only one person on the nominating commission would come from a business group.

The group has also gathered veteran educators in an advisory panel, something Himelstein said would give it more credibility. But those educators are not necessarily behind the idea. La Jolla High School Principal Dana Shelburne and Glenn Hillegas, a retired principal now running apprenticeship programs for Associated General Contractors, said they weren’t sure if they supported it yet or not.

Experts disagree on whether altering how school boards work can actually impact students. While some researchers believe that it makes sense to streamline control of the school board through mayoral control or other systems, others say altering the school board structure does little to stabilize districts.

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.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.