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Mark Powell has covered a lot of ground in his career. The business owner and adjunct professor is a former teacher, police officer and vice principal. But the University City resident says spending time with his two young girls is, and has for a long time been, his focus in life.
“I don’t want to be businessman of the year, I want to be father of the year,” he said.
Now Powell is challenging school board President John Lee Evans. In continuing our series of conversations with San Diego Unified school board candidates, we sat down with Powell to talk about how he’d operate on a board facing a host of hard decisions.
Born and raised in San Diego, he graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He started his first career as a reserve officer at the San Diego Police Department before being hired by the Sheriff’s Department three years later.
While stationed at the downtown jail, Powell said he decided he didn’t want to spend five years “imprisoned.” He went back to school to get a teaching credential.
His second career began as a substitute teacher at Webster Academy in southeastern San Diego, where he got a full-time gig after a few weeks. After a stint at Hearst Elementary School in Del Cerro, during which he received a master’s degree in educational administration, Powell was promoted to the position of dean of students of Montgomery Middle School in Linda Vista.
His next job was as vice principal of Correia Middle School in Point Loma. This was during the tenure of Superintendent Alan Bersin, and Powell said he fell afoul of Bersin’s administration after criticizing the superintendent’s new work plan for vice principals. He was transferred to Marie Curie Elementary School in University City to work as a fifth-grade teacher. He loved it so much there that he moved to the neighborhood so his daughters could attend the school.
After a four-year stint as a vice principal at the Santee school district, Powell began working in real estate full time, and has built up a mortgage brokerage business. He continues to teach as an adjunct professor at National University.
I posed five key questions to Powell. These are the same questions I previously asked of Bill Ponder, who is running for outgoing board member Shelia Jackson’s seat. I also expanded on those questions and added a couple more for good measure.
The school district’s going broke. The school board’s going to have to make some horrible decisions over the coming months and years, from making layoffs to possibly closing schools. Plus it’s a poorly paid, part-time position. Why on Earth would you want this job?
I want to put value back in education.
I’m firm in my belief that education affords a person higher self-esteem, better self-confidence and self-reliance. I’ve always been an advocate for children.
As a former school teacher, I have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be in the classroom. As a vice principal, I have first-hand knowledge of the daily operations of a school, from supervision, teacher evaluations and budget.
I believe that teachers are the backbone of the district. I want to make sure that they’re treated fairly and paid appropriately for the hard work they do day in and day out. I know teaching is not a 40-hour-a-week job, and teachers deserve respect from students, parents and the community.
My business background allows me to make sound fiscal decisions with regard to policy and fiscal management.
I’ve negotiated hundreds of contracts, and I’m skilled and trained in the negotiation process. What I find is necessary, with this board, with the upcoming contract negotiations, is that they need a person on that board who actually negotiates on a daily basis.
A lot of people see this position as a stepping stone to bigger political aspirations. Do you see this as a springboard, or is this its own thing?
At this time, my focus in on the San Diego Unified School District and the welfare of teachers, students, parents and support staff.
My goals at this point are to work diligently to place that value on education, and make no hollow promises, just common-sense results.
You said “at this time,” and “at this point.” That indicates to me that you do have future political aspirations. Is that right?
My focus is on the school board. I’m dedicating all of my extra time to making sure that San Diego city schools has the best-qualified, best-trained and most knowledgeable person.
You have a magic wand and you can wave it and make things happen, regardless of cost or practicality. What do you do to change local schools?
I go back to my basic message of putting value back in education.
Research has proven that one of the No. 1 predictors of student success is parent involvement, and for parents to understand that education is the conduit to getting out of poverty, increasing a person’s standard of living and health.
But, practically, what would you do to make that happen?
I would make sure every neighborhood school is a great school; that it’s safe, that it’s clean and that the best technology is being utilized.
I would make sure that teachers are given all the resources and training they need to better their profession. I would make sure that parents had open access to their schools, open lines of communication with teachers.
I would make sure that students are provided with state-of-the-art curriculum. I would love to see students walking into a school all carrying iPads. I would like to see education being carried on via online classes, so students who aren’t able to attend regular classrooms can still have access to education.
Will you be seeking the endorsement of the teachers union? And in the light of the adversarial relationship between the union and the district, if you do seek the endorsement, would you do anything to try and close that divide?
At this point, I am not seeking the endorsement of the union or any other organization.
But, once unions and other organizations get to know me, I feel confident that they’ll want to endorse me. Because I’m fair, I’m practical and we all share one common goal and that’s the best interest of students, teachers, parents and support staff and providing the best education possible for our students.
Your opponent, John Lee Evans, had significant support from the teachers union in getting elected. The union spent a lot of money on his campaign. Does that trouble you, going into this race?
I don’t know John Lee Evans. I’ve never met him.
I’m firm in my belief that if I make no hollow promises, just common-sense results and decisions, the unions and other organizations, parents and teachers will want to support me.
The primary issue facing the district is a financial one. What would be your approach to understanding, getting to grips with and ultimately solving the budget issues at the district?
Once elected, I’ll have access to more budgetary information, which will allow me to negotiate with the unions and teachers in good faith.
I’m committed to fair, open negotiations.
So, the idea is to get in there and get to grips with the budget, using your access to understand it better?
It’s very challenging to talk about a budget that you don’t have access to.
However, much of the budget is online. You can get access to it.
There are certain funds called “categorical funds,” which can only go to specific uses. The budget is an extremely complex process. It’s not for someone to just click online and figure it out.
Try and figure out your own taxes, your own budget. It’s challenging enough to figure your own daily budget out, but to go on a $1 billion budget, without having the ability to talk with the budget analyst, to work with the unions, to find out which categorical funds can get transferred, which ones can’t.
There are stringent rules that need to be followed. It’s not as simple as, “we’ve got a billion dollars, let’s just spend it.”
That’s where my business background comes in.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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