There are lots of stories to tell in local schools, but these are five of the biggest stories I’ll be chasing in the education world over the next year. Buckle your seat belts, it’s going to be an interesting year:

Money, Money, Money

San Diego Unified is facing a $120 million deficit and new Gov. Jerry Brown is warning that budgets won’t get any thicker. If the dire forecasts pan out — and the wonks seem to think they will — the budget crunch will force school boards to decide what matters most. And it will ramp up tensions between unions and management over what to cut, as in National City, where elementary teachers just took an important step toward a strike.

In San Diego Unified, it could jeopardize arts programs and magnet busing, halve the kindergarten day and leave more than 1,400 workers out of a job. What gets spared and what doesn’t will be the battle royale this year for parents, educators and anyone else with a stake in the schools. And it will be a baptism by fire for new school board members Scott Barnett and Kevin Beiser.

Whose School Board Is it Anyway?

It’s a hotly debated idea with heavy-duty backers: Does the San Diego Unified school board need a serious makeover for schools to succeed?

A group of philanthropists, parents and business leaders is pushing to add four new members to the school board. Instead of being elected like the existing five members, they would be appointed by a nine-member panel of university chiefs, parent leaders and a business rep. Their plan would also elect school board members from smaller areas rather than the district as a whole and limit how long they can serve.

The group argues the makeover would stabilize and depoliticize the school board. It has powerful backers like Irwin Jacobs and an energetic leader in Scott Himelstein. But the idea is repulsive to the teachers union, which has shown its muscle at the ballot box. Elected school board members call the plan elitist and undemocratic.

If it gets onto the ballot — possibly as soon as the summer — it will be a bitter fight over who should steer the school district. And while its supporters say this has nothing to do with the existing school board, the campaign will undoubtedly throw school district leaders into the spotlight for scrutiny.

The Battle over School Reform

This year, San Diego Unified started cobbling together a new vision of what schools need to succeed this year. It’s calling it “community-based school reform,” a decentralized system where educators at each school work together to come up with ideas.

It also emphasizes critical thinking, parent involvement and using data to help teachers improve instruction. And the teachers union has also hinted that it wants to expand schools’ reach beyond the classroom, taking on students’ emotional and health needs.

The plan is being posed as an alternative to controversial changes backed by the Obama Administration, such as tying test scores to teacher evaluation and closing faltering schools. The San Diego Unified school board, which is strongly backed by the teachers union, has steered clear of those ideas, calling them disruptive and unproven. Putting forward its own ideas is a sort of salvo in the battle over school reform.

Now the question is whether it will work. So far much of the plan is theory rather than practice, but San Diego Unified has also continued to improve on standardized tests. To prove itself, the new reform model will need to keep showing results and get backing from parents and community members.

It’ll also be important to see how theoretical ideas, such as pushing more critical thinking, really play out in classrooms. The success or failure of this brand of school reform will also reflect back on the school board. And that, in turn, could impact the campaign to change how the school board is chosen.

Keeping It In the Neighborhood

Just before the holidays, the San Diego Unified school board made two controversial choices. It decided to turn over most of the spots in a coveted magnet school in Chollas View to neighborhood kids. And it opted to concentrate federal funding for disadvantaged children on its highest poverty schools, gradually pulling the dollars away from schools with lower shares of disadvantaged kids.

It might not look like it, but these two choices are really a sign of something much bigger: a philosophical shift towards local schooling that is already slated to change where money flows in the school district.

San Diego Unified has long had a love affair with school choice, letting families choose magnet schools and other programs all over the district and paying to bus them there. More recently, the school board has emphasized the idea of neighborhood schools that are the heart of their community.

School districts can have both, of course. But when money is scarce, they have to decide what to put first. And that’s why these choices are so telling. When the school board decided to turn a magnet school that drew kids from all over the city into a mostly local school, it said it had to put neighborhood schools first. And when it changed how it divides up federal money, it put its money where its mouth was.

Shifting the federal money will strip funds from many schools in somewhat wealthier areas that serve children who are bused in from poorer areas.

So what happens now? With another budget crunch bearing down on the school district, busing for magnet schools is on the chopping block. The school board will have to decide again whether it wants to devote school money to help parents exercise choices — choices that can take them out of the neighborhood. And what really raises the stakes for the school board is that for many families, those same choices convinced them to stay in San Diego Unified instead of picking charters or private schools.

The New Kids on the Block

While new school board members Scott Barnett and Kevin Beiser are simpatico with the rest of the school board and likely to keep it headed in the same direction, both are Energizer bunnies with interesting back stories. Barnett is a budget wonk who is tough to pigeonhole, known for his unpredictability in political circles; Beiser is a middle school math teacher who was raised in poverty and became the first openly gay person on the San Diego school board.

They’ve already been tasked with leading a new committee to root out waste and find more efficient ways to do business in San Diego Unified. KPBS brought them on this week to talk about their plans. When the new year starts, keep an eye on the newbies to see what they do and where they fall on tough budget decisions. It’s not going to be an easy year to be new.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

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

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