San Diego schools are teetering on the financial edge. And as San Diego Unified fights to stay afloat, its leaders could also be fighting for their political lives.

Three school board seats are up for election next year. They’re now held by Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson.

The races are bound to center on how the massive school district has handled years of budget cuts — and whether the school board worsened its plight by promising raises, rehiring teachers and balking on unpopular cuts like school closures.

Jackson says she won’t run again. The decision comes after raised questions about conflicts of interest and whether she resides in her district. Candidates are already jostling for her seat representing the southeastern chunk of San Diego Unified, which includes some of the district’s most disadvantaged schools.

Four people could be in the running to replace Jackson: retired college administrator William Ponder, former San Diego Unified policy analyst Jerome Torres, minister Gerald Brown and former area superintendent Tony Burks. Ponder and Torres are already hammering at the budget crisis, arguing that the school board made its financial problems worse by promising future raises to school employees.

Brown is best known as an activist who has fought for the African-American community. And Burks is still weighing whether to run, saying the race is likely to focus on blaming Sacramento, but should focus on dramatically improving education.

The election will also be a referendum on Barrera and Evans, who shifted the school board towards the teachers union three years ago. So far no one has stepped forward to compete with them.

Paul M. Bowers, a photographer and parent, decided against challenging Barrera partly because he wasn’t sure if the board would have any power. San Diego Unified’s finances are so dire that if the state makes more cuts midyear, the superintendent warns the district could go insolvent. If that happened, the board would become a mere advisory panel, giving pointers to an appointed administrator with sweeping powers.

The three board members whose terms are up — Barrera, Evans and Jackson — won their seats with union backing. They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to dodge teacher layoffs.

They’ve tried to improve schools by encouraging each to come up with its own ideas. They resisted tying teacher evaluation to test scores, an idea that’s loathed by unions. And they decided to create a labor pact governing $2.1 billion in school construction and renovation — a step that infuriated non-union companies who declared political war on Barrera, Evans and Jackson.

Now the school district faces its worst crisis yet. Even if it escapes insolvency, the school district estimates it still must cut at least $60 million next year from a budget that has been sliced over and over.

The school board is under attack from almost all sides. The teachers union soured on Barrera and Evans this year after they reluctantly voted to lay off hundreds of teachers. Board members have also taken financial risks that could cost them votes. For instance, they restored hundreds of jobs this summer, banking on optimistic projections that might not pan out.

And parents have been frustrated by inconsistent and jarring decisions about budget cuts. For instance, the board sent school district staff scrambling to plan out school closures. Parents were enraged when the proposed cuts were announced. Then the board quickly balked at the cuts.

“All three of them need to go,” said Wendell Bass, a former San Diego Unified principal who has championed a plan to help African-American students. “They’ve lost direction.”

But their financial risks could have a political upside. The board members have tried to insulate classrooms from cuts, which could be a selling point at the ballot box. The board has managed to spare small classes for some of its youngest students, largely because they decided to rehire teachers. Despite the budget drama, test scores have risen.

The threat of insolvency is just one of the unknowns in a school board race that is now riddled with them. The teachers union, which has been the biggest muscle in recent races, is still on uneasy terms with Barrera and Evans over layoffs, making it unclear if they’ll put sweat and cash behind them.

Business backers, once a powerful force in school board elections, have retreated from recent races. But they’ve shown life recently. Some rallied around a campaign to remake the school board, which fizzled earlier this year. (Torres worked as a consultant for the campaign.) The group is still figuring out how they’ll be involved in the school board race. And it isn’t clear whether builders upset with the labor pact will jump in.

The conventional wisdom is that sitting school board members are all-but-impossible to beat, since most voters pay little attention to the race. Yet in the last two school board races, upstart candidates have upset incumbents three times. Every time, however, the upstart had teachers union support. That doesn’t seem likely to happen this time.

But the financial crisis could be a game-changer.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

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

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