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Once more into the breach. San Diego Business and the San Diego Foundation team up as a philanthropic nonprofit to leverage private money into an ostensibly vague civic “visioning” project that nonetheless focuses on “where residents will live, how they’ll get around, where they’ll work and how well their children will be educated.”

Wow, that’s some agenda — and very different from the specific goals of Utah or Florida or Chicago with whom comparisons are made in this story. To me, it sounds like an open-ended and unaccountable takeover by private enterprise.

Our movers and shakers unilaterally proclaim a “void” created by “lack of capability or trust in government or business.” They plan to orchestrate pro forma “public engagement” to get their “vision” ball rolling.

This venture is headed by Malin Burnham whose civic philanthropy is entirely based on his successful real estate development business. He and others like him here have a history of declaring governmental “voids” and then creating powerful private nonprofits or “public/private partnerships” that answer to no one. Too often these folks think they know best because they are, after all, captains of industry and commerce.

Déjà vu all over again. In the mid-1990s Malin Burnham and the San Diego Foundation enabled public school “reformers” who brought us politically ambitious non-educator Alan Bersin as superintendent of San Diego Unified schools. Burnham and friends and the Foundation paid for expensive head-hunting and “visioning” outreach that preceded Bersin’s appointment. They justified it with community meetings run by a psychologist where handfuls of citizens were asked to “describe the characteristics” they wanted in their next school supe. To my knowledge, no one ever said they wanted an ex-litigator, U.S. Attorney and Border Czar, but that’s what they got.

Burnham/San Diego Foundation et al. were conduits for lots of money in and out — Gates Foundation grants tied to Bersin’s tenure; money from LA billionaire Eli Broad for training principals at private University of San Diego; salarying a bi-coastal part-time academic chancellor; millions spent on transient consultants and top pay for retired Navy brass as administrators; attempted sales of school real estate; money for political campaigns of favorite school board candidates and more.

But there was not one substantive permanent improvement in the public schools’ class size or delivery of math or English as a Second Language or science or music and art or social studies or counseling or specialized tutoring.

We know from past experience that today’s new nonprofit will fund only those politicians who will deliver on the quid pro quo by doing as they are told, just like always. This project hasn’t got a thing to do with on-going community participation, public accountability or genuine civic improvement: it is about replacing government with private power.

Frances O’Neill Zimmerman lives in La Jolla. She is a former San Diego Unified school board member.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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