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The school board race in the northeastern areas of San Diego Unified School District looked like a straightforward affair. It offered voters a choice between two radically different candidates: Kevin Beiser, the passionate teacher, and Stephen Rosen, the finance guy.

Then the incumbent jumped back in. Katherine Nakamura shocked the education world in June by failing to advance out of the primary, only to rouse it once again this summer by launching a write-in campaign. A judge has said she can run. But he hasn’t said whether she can actually win if she gets the most votes.

The whole election could end up being decided in court. Or at the very least Nakamura, who ideologically is somewhere between her two competitors, could play the spoiler.

“She could split the votes,” said David Page, who leads a district committee on disadvantaged schools. “It’s sort of a Ross Perot situation.”

Beiser has staked his campaign on his classroom savvy, frequently invoking his math teaching awards and experience at Granger Junior High in National City. He champions small classes for the youngest students — so much so that he once answered a question about pensions by talking about small classes.

He enthusiastically supports the idea of decentralized school reform backed by this school board. And like the school board majority of Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson, he is supported by the teachers union and opposes ideas they dislike, such as tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

“I think Beiser is really going to support the whole strategy unfolding in the district,” said David Valladolid, the president of the Parent Institute for Quality Education, speaking for himself.

Beiser has been reluctant, however, to offer concrete policy proposals. He says San Diego Unified should form a community committee to weigh in on the budget, but has shied from advocating for specific budget cuts, saying that he doesn’t want to impose ideas. His budget experience is largely in retail management, his career before teaching.

People who think the school board is already too dominated by the teachers union are uneasy about Beiser becoming the fourth member with labor backing.

“I just see him being a puppet for what they want,” said Amy Rodenbeck, a parent who backs Rosen.

Almost everything that Beiser is, Rosen is not. Rosen agrees with the ideas behind the school board reform plan, but he would be a dissenting voice on budget issues.

Where Beiser has been reluctant to talk about specific cuts, Rosen has peppered the debates with them. Rosen opposed promising teachers a raise. He is also against giving teachers automatic raises for staying in the district. And Rosen argues the district should include students’ test scores in teacher evaluations, a topic that’s the subject of heavy debate in today’s education world.

The Scripps Ranch parent owns a broadcast systems company and has touted his financial knowledge and independence from the teachers union as reasons to back him.

“He’s not beholden to any special interest group,” said Tamara Hurley, a parent at Jerabek Elementary School who supports Rosen. “He just wants to get the job done.”

He has financed his own campaign heavily, loaning himself more than $100,000. Rosen is backed by the conservative Lincoln Club and builders’ groups like the Associated General Contractors.

His detractors say Rosen knows too little about education and lacks the classroom perspective of Beiser.

“Rosen is concerned about fiscal responsibility, but he doesn’t have the educational view,” said Bill Freeman, president of the teachers union. “He has a business view.”

Rosen has also had to address complaints about his campaign claims. He promoted the fact that he voluntarily helped San Diego Unified apply for grants for career education facilities.

However, his company has benefited from those same grants. TV Magic has been paid more than $243,000 to install audiovisual systems at several high schools as a subcontractor on projects funded by the grants. Rosen said it was chosen through a fair process and had no guarantee of getting the work.

Nakamura is the wild card. She backs unifying causes such as music education and making the district budget easier to understand. But Nakamura has also been a dissenting voice on labor issues, costing her support from Democratic groups that went with Beiser.

Like Rosen, Nakamura disliked the promised salary increase for teachers. Like Beiser, she has thrown her support to a new tax for schools. She opposed a labor pact on school construction with Rosen. Yet she stood with Beiser in arguing that the budget problem isn’t one of waste, but the fact that California has underfunded schools, lobbying against state budget cuts in Sacramento.

“We rely on her experience,” said Bey-Ling Sha, a parent who helped file a lawsuit for Nakamura to run a write-in campaign. “We need someone with a different view on the board.”

Winning a write-in campaign is extremely hard, especially in a less prominent race like the school board. Attorneys for the school district say that whoever gets the most votes will win, even if they don’t have 50 percent of the vote. It’s a battle that, if Nakamura wins, will likely end up in the courts.

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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