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If you haven’t been paying attention to the elections for the San Diego Unified school board, now might be a good time to start.

San Diego Unified is at a critical juncture in its history. The next couple of years could determine the future of the district for decades to come. That’s because, like many school districts in California, San Diego Unified is in the middle of a financial storm that at its worst could lead to insolvency.

That storm has been exacerbated by the actions of the school board itself over the last few years. While the board has largely managed to insulate classrooms from recent cuts in state education funding, it’s now paying the cost for a big gamble it made two years ago in order to do so.

The board has also shown that it’s unwilling to make cold, hard decisions on controversial issues like shutting down underperforming schools. Board members caved on that issue to pressure from parents, making a decision that pleased the public but went against the specific recommendations of district staff.

Three of the five board seats are up for election this year (view a map of the sub-districts here):

Richard Barrera, who is running uncontested for reelection in sub-district D, which encompasses downtown and midtown.

Shelia Jackson, who is stepping down from sub-district E in southeastern San Diego. Two candidates are facing off to replace Jackson: Retired university administrator Bill Ponder and university administrator and instructor Marne Foster.

• John Lee Evans, who faces two challengers, Mark Powell and Jared Hamilton in his effort to continue representing sub-district A, which encompasses University City, Clairemont and other neighborhoods in the district’s north.

You can find out more about where all the candidates stand in this handy report card.

For all the drama surrounding the district, very little will be decided on Tuesday. Unlike the city elections, candidates can’t win outright in the primary so both contested elections will move on to November.

In a bit of an odd system, tomorrow’s primary vote is only open to voters who live in the sub-districts up for grabs.

The top two vote-getters from those contests will then proceed to the general election in November, which can be voted on by any resident of the San Diego Unified School District.

Let’s take a look at the two contested races:

Evans’ Fight for Survival

Evans’ race will be the one to watch tomorrow night.

The only real decision that will be made tomorrow is which of the three candidates gets knocked out of this race.

Judging by the reaction at the weekly school board meetings, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction among local parents with the school board right now. The election couldn’t really come at a worse time for Evans. He has recently voted to lay off one in five of the district’s teachers, and he’s upset the powerful teachers union (which backed him to victory in 2008) by calling on teachers to put off the pay raises he and his board colleagues promised them two years ago.

In short, he’s the figurehead of an organization in dire straits. He’s also the incumbent. Assuming he advances, we’ll learn who he’ll go against head-to-head in the November district-wide election.

The Race for a Vacant Seat

The battle between Ponder and Foster to replace Jackson will be interesting insofar as it will give some indication of the relative popularity of each candidate on their home turf.

Both Ponder and Foster are both strong, likeable candidates.

One possible factor that could impact the race is that Foster has the backing of the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents local teachers. The SDEA has traditionally been something of a kingmaker in these elections.

But with the SDEA facing its own internal struggles and trying to figure out what to do, if anything, to help right the district’s fiscal ship, it has so far had little to say about the election. The union is “recommending” Foster for the school board, but hasn’t spent any money on her behalf.

At a time when one in five teachers faces the possibility of losing their job, it will be interesting to see how much impact the union’s backing has on tomorrow night’s result.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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