The backers of an unusual plan to remake the school board turned in their petition with a bang. The mayor was there. So was a former state senator known for her controversial stands on schools. They were confident that it would move ahead, having gathered roughly 40 percent more signatures than the bare minimum they needed, a big margin for error.

Now their plan is going out with a whimper, killed not by tough debates or attack ads but just about the most mundane thing imaginable: It didn’t get enough signatures to get onto the ballot.

The campaign said it turned in 133,000 signatures, more than the roughly 93,000 they needed. City Clerk elections analyst Denise Jenkins put the count a little lower, slightly shy of 130,000 signatures. The County Registrar of Voters sampled 3 percent of them and projected roughly 88,000 valid signatures, lower than the bar needed to put the initiative on the ballot.

That was so close that elections officials were legally bound to count every signature to be sure. So they went over every one and found 90,000 were valid, but more than 39,000 were not.

That comes out to almost one third of the signatures. Seventeen percent of all the signatures came from people who weren’t registered to vote. Eleven percent were duplicate signatures. The rest were for a scattering of other reasons, including being in the wrong district or not including an address.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” said Erica Holloway, a spokeswoman for San Diegans 4 Great Schools. Holloway said they had already fished out some duplicate signatures before turning them in.

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Its downfall was strikingly similar to a bid by City Councilman Carl DeMaio to dramatically change contracting and outsourcing in the city last spring. DeMaio turned in more than 134,000 signatures, but a random sampling of 3 percent of those signatures found an unusually high number of duplicates, disqualifying it. The signature effort fell so far short that it did not qualify for a hand count.

Both campaigns hired the La Jolla Group, a political consulting firm led by Bobby Glaser, to gather signatures. I left a message for Glaser this morning to ask about the signatures and how it could come up so far short. I’ve also phoned Tom Shepard, another consultant on the campaign, but we haven’t yet connected

Local politicos who have worked on other campaigns say the error rates are high.

Conservative political consultant Jen Jacobs, who worked DeMaio’s aborted campaign, said she normally prepares for 10 to 15 percent of signatures to be tossed. (In this case, 30 percent were disqualified.) The firms that are paid to gather signatures are supposed to verify signatures to catch duplicates and unregistered voters.

Evan McLaughlin, political and legislative director for the regional Labor Council, which has spoken out against the school board measure, was stunned that one of every nine signatures was a duplicate.

“Firms should be double-checking these,” McLaughlin said.

A group of philanthropists, business leaders, parents and others led the push to remake the school board. Known as San Diegans 4 Great Schools, they argued that expanding the school board and changing the way it was chosen would depoliticize the school board and reform a school district that was failing too many kids.

It would have expanded the board to include four new members appointed by a committee of university chiefs, parent leaders and a business representative. It would also have imposed term limits on school board members and changed the election system so that board members only ran within smaller subdistricts, instead of campaigning for votes from everyone in the school district.

Existing school board members and the teachers union opposed the idea of appointed school board members, calling it elitist and undemocratic. Labor leaders saw it as a power grab against the teachers union, which has been the biggest political force in recent school board races.

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

Emily Alpert

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

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