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. Last up: Bonnie Dumanis.

The Candidate: Bonnie Dumanis

The Word: Control

Dumanis wants to increase mayoral involvement in city schools much more than any of the other candidates. It’s the policy at the centerpiece of her campaign and would group San Diego in with the growing trend of mayoral involvement in urban schools across the country. Most significantly, she plans on authoring a 2014 ballot measure that would add four mayoral-appointed members to the current five-member elected school board.

She also wants to have a new department to act as a liaison between the Mayor’s Office and school district and appoint an independent board to oversee district finances.

The Ideas: By increasing control over schools, Dumanis also would be increasing the accountability of the Mayor’s Office. She has said she will “fix” the city’s schools by the end of her first term in 2016. By her definition, fixing schools means that student performance has improved, the district has more stable finances and threats of teacher layoffs and a state takeover have ended.

She contends that her appointments to the school board will de-politicize San Diego Unified’s leadership, which has seen frequent turnover among board members and superintendents in recent years.

Her board and financial panel appointments will come from recommendations from local university and parent leaders. And the education liaison in her office will coordinate everything, including connecting schools with philanthropic donors.

“It’s really an assistant’s position to bring the leverage of the Mayor’s Office, the bully pulpit of the mayor, to help the schools get the expertise that they need,” Dumanis said in an interview.

The Weaknesses: For someone who has made a bold education plan front and center in her campaign, Dumanis has appeared to struggle at times with the finer points or import of her ideas.

Faced with a question about her position on the current last-in, first-out layoff practices at an April mayoral education debate, Dumanis paused for a full six seconds before asking for clarification. She eventually said she supported a more merit-based system. (Dumanis said she understood the question and she’s long dealt with similar civil service rules. “It’s just trying to put it into a mouthful,” she said. “Sometimes I get it backwards.”)

She also isn’t sure how many people she’d need for her new education department, but said she’ll find the money for it by cutting from other places in the budget.

Dumanis wants to advocate for adding parents to the school district’s labor negotiating team. But doing so would put parents in the thicket of the state’s collective bargaining laws, which delineate a strict process for negotiating in good faith. Dumanis said she expected parents would abide by the rules, but hadn’t yet worked out the details for how the process would work.

“We’re not getting down in the weeds right now,” she said. “We are looking at the overall picture and the need to have parent involvement and transparency in the process.”

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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