Early Tuesday night, school board candidate Mark Powell was confident — real confident.

“I can’t believe I’m not beating him,” Powell said of incumbent school board President John Lee Evans.

Fighting words from a man who’s never run for anything, and who was squaring off against a four-year incumbent. In any normal race, an incumbent school board president should at least have some edge, in name recognition if nothing else, to defend against a relatively unknown challenger.

Of course, the race for the San Diego Unified school board is anything but normal.

With the district in financial chaos, one in five local of teachers currently laid off and one of the school board trustees calling on his colleagues to throw in the towel and declare insolvency, Evans always had a hill to climb.

But, with 89 percent of precincts reporting, Evans was leading Powell by just 0.14 percent – just 31 votes. While Powell strode round downtown’s Golden Hall all evening, grinning enthusiastically, Evans appeared only briefly before heading out.

Candidate Jared Hamilton, who gleaned just 14.5 percent of the vote, and is now out of the contest, was nowhere to be seen all evening. Nor was incumbent Trustee Richard Barrera, who ran uncontested for his seat.

Evans and Powell will now take their fight district-wide. While Tuesday’s election only polled voters from a sub-district that encompasses Clairemont and University City, every voter in the district will be able to vote on the race in November’s general election, where Powell and Evans will square off again. That election, like this one, promises to be as much a referendum on the school district’s performance as it is a measure of each candidate’s electability.

Later in the evening, as he loaded campaign signs into the back of his car, Powell said that will work to his advantage.

“People are screaming for a change. When the entire city has the opportunity to vote, you’re going to see much, much larger margins coming in for me,” he said.

In the day’s other school board race, candidate Bill Ponder took a bruising of a different kind.

Ponder, a retired university administrator, squared off against Marne Foster, a community college administrator and instructor. Both are political newbies, and neither raised much money or ran much of a campaign.

And why would they? Both were guaranteed a place on November’s ballot. As such, Tuesday’s vote was a measure of how each candidate polled based on their grassroots campaigning and appearances at sparsely attended, wonky debates on education policy.

Foster showed she clearly has the edge in that regard. With 98 of precincts reporting, she had 61.7 percent of the vote, trouncing Ponder, with 38.3 percent.

Ponder pinned his opponent’s win on her support from the San Diego Education Association, which has pledged its support for Foster, but hasn’t paid for any mailers or other materials for her yet.

“The union got everybody in line,” Ponder said. “I would have hoped that people would’ve independently thought about what’s in the best interests of students, what’s in the best interests of the districts, and once we get that out there, the general public will start to do that.”

With an apparently anemic turnout, Ponder’s theory about the union’s backing may have some merit. If few people were paying attention to the school board races, any strong voice had the advantage.

But as the election ramps up, the union’s voice is only going to get louder. So, in the next four months, Ponder will have to come up with his own chorus.

The dress rehearsal’s over. Now it’s time for the full performance.

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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