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District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis proposed the San Diego mayor take a giant leap into education Thursday, unveiling a plan that comes the closest to mayoral control over local schools as any in recent memory.

The centerpiece of Dumanis’ plan would expand the five-member board to nine seats and have the mayor appoint the remaining four. A group of education and parent leaders would recommend candidates for the mayoral appointments.

“Leadership, vision and experience are needed to put our schools on a new path,” Dumanis said at a press conference for her mayoral campaign in Carmel Valley. “Because it’s clear the path we are on today is the wrong one.”

Dumanis’ proposal would put the Mayor’s Office in the thick of school politics, a place it hasn’t dared to venture. Mayors in other cities such as Washington D.C. and New York have asserted greater control over their local school districts, but in San Diego it’s only been discussed in general terms.

But with San Diego Unified’s recent flirtation with financial insolvency, its problems have become a cause du jour for politicians. By making this gambit, Dumanis not only would be taking on the burden of the city’s extensive fiscal problems, but also adding a second financially troubled large government to her agenda.

The major elements of Dumanis’ plan include:

• Backing a ballot measure in 2014 that would add four mayoral appointments to the current five-member school board.

• Establishing an independent oversight board for district finances.

• Creating a new city department to act as a liaison between the Mayor’s Office and the district.

• Adding parents of students to the school district’s contract negotiating team.

Dumanis’ education plan is the first major policy proposal of her mayoral campaign, a curious choice given the myriad big issues the city faces.

Even if Sanders resolves the city’s long-term budget deficit as promised, his successor will inherit depleted public services and huge pension and infrastructure repair deficits. At Thursday’s press conference, a reporter asked Dumanis why she isn’t running for school board if she’s so passionate about education.

“I have a passion for schools because I’ve been a judge, and a judge by the way in the juvenile court for five years,” Dumanis replied. “I see the impact on the quality of our life and those who come after us. It has a direct impact on the city.”

Dumanis’ plan borrows from an initiative that failed last summer.

Backers, including business leaders, parents, academics and philanthropists, wanted to added four unelected members to the school board based on recommendations from parent groups, heads of local universities and the local Chamber of Commerce and economic development organization. Despite a $1 million campaign, the initiative disintegrated when backers failed to collect enough valid signatures to reach the ballot.

Dumanis said she hadn’t read that initiative, but spoke with those who were behind it. She wouldn’t reveal who advised her on education issues beyond an unnamed group of teachers, parents, students and others interested in reform.

Dumanis also struggled to differentiate parts of her plan from what the district already is doing.

She wants to create an independent financial advisory board. But the district has a financial and audit committee with public members that’s led by San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister. Dumanis wants to push for digital and online learning programs. That’s already being done. Dumanis said there needed to be more of them.

Similarly, she didn’t have details on her proposal to create a new city department for education issues.

She didn’t know how big the office would be or how much it would cost. Asked where the city, which is facing its own $31.8 million budget deficit, would find the money for a new department, Dumanis replied: “We’re going to restructure City Hall so there will be money in the budget.”

School board president John Lee Evans argued most of Dumanis’ proposals amounted to plans rejected by the public (the expansion of the school board), legally questionable (adding parents to contract negotiations) or issues the district already had addressed (independent financial oversight, greater parental involvement and digital learning).

“It doesn’t make any more sense for the mayor to appoint members to the school board as it does the school district to appoint City Council members,” Evans said.

Dumanis isn’t the only mayoral candidate to advocate for more city involvement in education. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher recently wrapped up a seven-month tour on school issues and plans to release his own education proposal.

Evans said he welcomed the attention and ideas, but added that mayoral aspirants might want to focus on the city first.

“People might conjecture that when people are running for an office like mayor in a city that has its own financial problems, it’s maybe a little bit easier to point to something else that might need a little help rather than something they would have direct control over,” Evans said.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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