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Most sitting school board members talk up how the school district has improved on their watch. Not John de Beck. As he campaigns for another four years on the board, de Beck sounds more like an upstart, complaining that San Diego Unified hasn’t tackled its biggest problems.

His frank talk has won de Beck fans and a reputation as a politician who says what he thinks, like it or not. He raises prickly questions and grills school district staff, even when it comes to ideas he likes.

“John is a renegade,” said Pat Hom, who sits on the oversight committee for the bond to renovate local schools. Her youngest child recently graduated from Mission Bay High. “He’s not owned by anyone.”

After nearly two decades on the school board, his reelection hinges on whether voters believe de Beck is a vital critic or just a curmudgeon. While de Beck has piped up, exposed problems and dreamed up ideas, he has been less successful in building political coalitions to actually change things. He sees himself as an idea man — but has done little to cement his ideas after floating them to the public.

And that’s fine with him. “My value is to create ideas,” de Beck said. “If they don’t fly, that’s OK.”

Some of his ideas have stuck, though not always in the way he intended.

De Beck pushed for a parcel tax long before the school board decided to seek one this year. But the idea was shelved because the school district was so at odds with its teachers union that district leaders didn’t try to work with it.

He agitated for a shorter school year as a fair way to cut the budget. But when the idea gained traction on the school board the next year, de Beck changed his mind and pushed against it, saying it would hurt kids too much. Instead, de Beck argued it would be better to simply cut salaries.

“He says these things and then later, people say, ‘Oh yeah, we want to do that too!’” said supporter and former school board member Mitz Lee.

And de Beck has long pushed for the school district to take its cues from “clusters,” the groups of schools that feed into each high school. San Diego Unified is now trying it as a way to decentralize decision making. But de Beck complains that San Diego Unified has corrupted the idea by simply using it as a way to push ideas from the central office, instead of really giving communities control.

Other ideas have simply fizzled. De Beck announced an ambitious proposal to split off the coastal areas of San Diego Unified into a separate, smaller district; parents never took up his call to organize. He championed the idea of multiple leaders instead of a single superintendent; the school board didn’t bite.

His biggest push is stopping students from advancing to the next grade without the needed skills. But that, too, has been a perennial frustration for de Beck, an issue that has come up over and over with little change.

Scott Barnett, who is trying to unseat him, says de Beck’s plans are lead balloons.

Old allies have turned against him. Two other school board members have thrown their endorsements to Barnett, hinting he’ll be easier to work with.

“All I know is he’s been there too long,” said George Walker Smith, a former school board member.

De Beck spent more than three decades teaching, first at community college, then in high schools, teaching business and vocational classes such as graphics arts, typing and journalism. He worked in the central offices and had a stint advising school districts statewide on how to tailor vocational classes for students with disabilities. Eventually he came back to the classroom, and retired from an alternative high school.

De Beck first ran and lost in 1986 before winning in 1990. The teachers union, where he was once treasurer, backed him.

Often outnumbered on the school board, he has played the role of a gadfly even while in power. During the tenure of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, de Beck became known as one of his most outspoken opponents, criticizing what he called a one-size-fits-all approach to school reform.

Bersin critics like parent leader David Page called de Beck a hero for speaking up. Marginalized on the board, he sometimes skipped the quiet channels where school board members are supposed to bring their concerns to school district staff, publicly airing disputes in the media.

“His hyper-political approach to opposing every reform proposal during the Bersin era was not productive,” said Tad Parzen, formerly an attorney for San Diego Unified under Bersin. “But he felt like he was doing his duty.”

Even after Bersin left, de Beck continued to air sensitive issues. For instance, under Superintendent Carl Cohn, de Beck talked openly about the problematic moonlighting of a top schools official, calling on the embattled executive to step down while other school board members shied from talking about it.

However, de Beck has also lobbed complaints before knowing the facts, frustrating fellow board members and staff. For instance, during a seemingly mundane school board discussion about student enrollment last week, de Beck railed against the school district for lacking instant data about student attendance. But San Diego Unified does have that data, Superintendent Bill Kowba told him.

Critics like Barnett complain that de Beck derails discussions instead of advancing them.

De Beck also alienated one of his earliest backers: the teachers union. Former school board member Kay Davis said de Beck was “100 percent the union mouthpiece” when first elected.

Nobody would say that now. De Beck lampooned the union two years ago when it protested cutting class sizes in selected grades and schools.

He voted for layoffs and opposed a labor pact on the school facilities bond. And as budget cuts pressed the school district, de Beck argued that the school board should just declare an end to labor negotiations and force cuts. That has stripped him of his usual support from the teachers union, whose leaders argue that he attacks them unfairly and has dragged sensitive negotiations into the public eye.

His disinterest in diplomacy has sometimes been a political liability. De Beck walked out of the Sierra Club’s endorsement meeting after being peppered with questions, said Carolyn Chase, who leads the local chapter.

“He didn’t want to listen or engage. He wanted to lecture us,” Chase said. Her group endorsed Barnett.

When Barnett criticized de Beck recently for using a home internet connection and an iPhone provided by the school district to campaign, de Beck readily admitted it and blew off the issue in the Union-Tribune, saying, “What am I supposed to do, have two internet connections at my house?”

It was classic de Beck — blunt and straightforward, whether you like it or not.

In the last few weeks of the campaign, while other politicians are scrambling to knock on doors and shake hands, de Beck is taking a trip to Turkey with his wife.

De Beck has picked up political backing from construction companies, contractors and their employees, who have donated more than $8,000 to his campaign — more than a quarter of his fundraising. His other backers tend to be long-time school district faces and retirees.

His biggest advantage over Barnett is his classroom savvy. He believes the key problem is student motivation and backed a program to reward students with field trips, called Catch a Rising Star.

But de Beck has been repeatedly frustrated in his quests to change instruction, too. Catch a Rising Star was delayed this year due to budget cuts.

One of the things he and Barnett agree on, de Beck said, is that the school district is still in trouble.

A big poster in his office reads “An Introduction to Error Analysis,” with a photo of Bersin, Alvarado and de Beck tucked into the bottom corner of the frame, a photo from when he thought they’d turn schools around.

“I keep it to remind me of how stupid I was,” he said with a grin, adding: “Just because you fail doesn’t mean you stop thinking.”

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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