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Moira Allbritton devotes at least five hours every week to the needs of San Diego Unified students with disabilities. She is a stay-at-home mom with five kids in Pacific Beach who leads a parent committee on special education, a job that consists largely of combing through emails and fine-tuning meeting agendas.
“It’s kind of mundane stuff,” Allbritton said.
If a new campaign to remake the San Diego Unified school board wins out, her humdrum post could become one of the most powerful positions in the district. Allbritton would sit on a nine-member committee charged with picking four appointed school board members to expand upon the elected five-member board.
Under the unusual new plan plugged by San Diegans 4 Great Schools, the deciders would include: parents who lead school district committees for students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged kids, English learners and gifted students; four leaders of local universities and a representative from one of two local business groups.
Granting such important powers to such a small group has unquestionably been the most hotly debated part of the campaign: Would these nine people do a better job than the 200,000-plus voters who usually decide whether someone gets onto the school board or not?
San Diegans 4 Great Schools argues that the new group would be insulated from the political and financial pressures that drive school board elections. They say that the existing method has given “special interests” — both business and labor — too much influence. And they believe that dedicated parents and outside leaders would be more likely to pick qualified leaders with educational expertise.
“They’d put the interests of the students first and foremost,” said Tom Goodman, who was a San Diego Unified superintendent in the 1970s. “Not the interests of employees or adults or whatever.”
Existing school board members dislike the idea, complaining that it is elitist and undemocratic. The teachers union has derided it as “union busting,” a way to counter candidates with labor backing who have won at the ballot box.
“I trust the democratic process,” said Dorothy Smith, a former school board member who dislikes the idea. “What kind of accountability would these appointed people have?”
Members of the new group would be chosen by their position — not by name. So committee members will come and go. But glancing at who holds those jobs now is a snapshot of what this important group could someday be like.
The makeover would elevate parent leaders to a whole new level.
One of those parents, Valentina Hernandez, even mistakenly thought she would actually be on the school board, not the group that would choose it. The parents lead special committees that advise the school board on how to handle issues that impact specific groups of students.
Hernandez and the four other parent leaders who now hold those spots are united by their exceptional involvement. David Page is known as a human encyclopedia on funding for disadvantaged students; Katie Anderson, who leads a committee on gifted students along with Elizabeth Nagy, estimated she spends at least a dozen hours a week on school issues.
“I feel like our school board has been selling out to special interests,” Nagy said. “We’re doing what the teachers union wants us to do as opposed to what’s best for students.” She pointed to the board giving teachers a raise while budget cuts loom for gifted programs.
Their unpaid jobs often go to whoever is willing to put in the time. Elections tend to be uncompetitive, even friendly. School district staff says roughly 50 to 65 people vote on who will lead Hernandez’s committee, while Allbritton estimated fewer than 24 voted in her committee.
But getting a chance to choose school board members could make their spots much more coveted. Erik Bruvold, who leads a National University think tank, fears it would politicize the committees and detract from their missions.
The idea that they wouldn’t suffer the same political pressures is “naïve,” he said.
Anderson, Hernandez and Page officially support the switch, though Anderson added she wouldn’t want to choose school board members; Nagy says she likes the idea but is still cautious. Allbritton said she couldn’t take an official stand on the idea because her whole group should weigh in.
They would be joined by the four leaders at the top of San Diego State University, the University of San Diego, the University of California, San Diego and the local community college district. The university chiefs are typically respected figures with long resumes: Constance Carroll, who leads the local community colleges, was just nominated by President Obama for the National Council on the Humanities.
Julie Meier Wright, CEO of the regional Economic Development Corp., said university presidents have a vested interest in making sure that kids graduate equipped for college. While the university leaders shied from weighing in on the idea, their names alone could lend it more credibility.
The ninth spot would alternate between an education representative from the Chamber of Commerce or from the Economic Development Corp. Right now, those spots are held, respectively, by Christopher Yanov, the founder of the Reality Changers after school program, and Mike Chapin, the retired CEO of a geotechnical engineering firm who has advised San Diego State on science education.
The idea is new and unusual: Experts from across the country said they knew of no other school systems that use a committee to pick appointees. Usually a mayor or governor chooses members if the board’s appointed. The closest thing that scholars know of is in Boston, where a group of parents, educators and outsiders nominate people before the mayor makes his choice.
Having a board that is partly elected and partly appointed is also uncommon and has had mixed results. Oakland, for instance, tried it briefly when Jerry Brown was mayor and later scrapped it.
Letting a committee choose subverts the traditional idea behind appointed school boards: a single person to point to if things go right or wrong. Stanford University professor emeritus of education Michael Kirst called it “untried and risky,” saying no one would know who to hold accountable.
But it could also dampen the kind of criticism that mayoral control has battled in New York and D.C.
“San Diego may be leading the way,” said Kenneth Wong, who leads the education department at Brown University and studies mayoral control. “Some communities are uneasy about giving the mayor all the power in public education. This could be a way to have some broader engagement.”
While the group is more inclusive than just letting the mayor choose, if it were created right now, it would be almost entirely white. Since it consists of people who have significant free time to volunteer or rose to the top in academia or business, the group is likely to skew towards people with more education and higher incomes.
Besides adding new school board members, the plan put forward by San Diegans 4 Great Schools would also elect board members from individual wards rather than from the entire district. It would also impose term limits for school board members.
The group is now gathering signatures to put their idea on the ballot, which could happen in 2012 or earlier if a special election happens this spring. More than half of city of San Diego voters would have to agree to the change.