With San Diego Unified School District in continued financial distress, the city’s four major mayoral candidates have made K-12 education an issue in the campaign. The city has no direct control over the school system and current Mayor Jerry Sanders has largely avoided talking about education during his seven-year tenure. But across the country, big city mayors increasingly have gotten more involved in their K-12 education systems. And in San Diego, public polls show voters want the mayor and City Council to pay more attention here.

In a series of stories this week, we’ll be laying out the mayoral candidate’s education plans, explaining their ideas and calling out their potential weaknesses. Next up: Nathan Fletcher.

The Candidate: Nathan Fletcher

The Word: Philanthropy

Fletcher has a laundry list of ideas to improve K-12 education. He wants to increase job training programs, promote greater access to the internet and create two specialized high schools. One of the schools would focus on science and math and the other on the military.

He plans to implement these changes primarily through the creation of a private foundation that would rely on donations to fund his goals and push his agenda.

The Ideas: Fletcher attempts to centralize the region’s philanthropic educational giving in one place: his foundation. This kind of coordination and leadership exists in many other cities, but not here, said Paula Cordeiro, dean of University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea to have this,” Cordeiro said. She became a Fletcher supporter after she heard him explain his education plan.

The biggest ticket idea in the proposal is ending the “digital divide” in the region by the end of his first term in 2016. Fletcher said he’d claim success once every student had 24/7 access to a computer and the internet.

The foundation’s board, Fletcher said, would set its specific priorities and funding needs. Fletcher said the board members likely would include people who helped him develop his plan, such as the principal of Los Peñasquitos Elementary School and a Poway Unified School District board member, as well as representatives from the business community and the teachers union.

He estimated the foundation’s annual budget would be “at least” a couple million dollars a year.

The Weaknesses: There’s a reason Fletcher is vague about the foundation’s finances. He doesn’t know how much his plan will cost. And that’s a bigger question than normal because he could define his goals in many different ways. The result will have a tremendous effect on the price tag and on how much time Fletcher might have to dedicate to the issue.

For instance, if Fletcher declared that a current school fit his definition of a science-math specialized high school, then it would cost nothing or a few thousand a year to meet that goal. If he wanted to build a school from scratch, that would cost in the millions.

“It would be cool to see a number of those things in place,” said Tony Burks, an official at San Diego State University’s National Center for Urban School Transformation, of Fletcher’s plan. “But it would be cooler to know what it would cost.”

Fletcher said he would first look to existing programs to see if they met his goals and then figure out if they needed supplemental funding, before considering something new.

The digital divide aspect of the plan seems one of the easier aspects to quantify.

The San Diego Unified School District argues that it’s already aggressively addressing digital divide issues, but needs long-term support. The district estimates it will cost $10 million to $15 million a year to continue a technology program it’s now funding through school bond proceeds. It provides every student with a netbook or iPad, replaces classroom technology every few years and establishes wireless internet access in all of the district’s schools.

Fletcher said his foundation’s efforts wouldn’t simply fund San Diego Unified’s technology needs. But he had no estimate for how much it might cost to meet his goal of ending the digital divide.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. 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 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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