As the father of a wonderful 3-year-old, I know how busy life can get for parents. It’s hard enough keeping up with birthday parties, swim lessons and soccer practices without wonking out on city or state politics.

But for local parents, the general election on Nov. 5 is about far more than Obama vs. Romney. Here’s why:

• San Diegans will elect two new members to the San Diego Unified School District board. Given the district’s teetering financial situation, tenuous relationship with its teachers union and resistance to reform efforts on crucial issues like teacher evaluation, whoever wins those two seats will have a lot of power to shape your child’s future.

• Two propositions on the ballot could significantly impact the quality of your child’s education both tomorrow and in years to come. They each call for increased taxes to channel more money to schools at a time when districts across California (including here in San Diego) are trying to fend off bankruptcy.

• San Diego Unified also wants voters to pass a $2.8 billion bond to repair schools and pay for technology upgrades. This bond will hit your pocket book, but supporters say if we don’t cough up, our schools will start to disintegrate.

I’m going to break these three issues down for you into quick, bite-size chunks. I’ll start today with the school board race and I’ll get into the other two in the coming weeks.

And, be sure to come to our school board debate at Politifest. It starts Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on the main stage.

The School Board Races:

Three seats are opening up this year:

• Sub-District D: Current board member: Richard Barrera. Challengers: None.

Barrera isn’t being challenged in this election. We won’t spend any more time on him.

• Sub-District A: Current board member: John Lee Evans. Challenger: Mark Powell.

Evans, the current board president, is running for re-election, hoping to win a second term. His challenger, Mark Powell, caused an upset in June when he won more votes than the incumbent.

• Sub-District E: Current board member: Shelia Jackson. Candidates: Bill Ponder and Marne Foster.

Jackson is stepping down from the school board after eight years. Foster handily beat Ponder in June’s primary by 62 percent to 38 percent of the vote.

How the Election Works

In June, each sub-district seat held a primary election vote. That election could only be voted on by residents of the individual sub-districts.

In November’s general election, however, everybody in the district gets to vote on all the races. So wherever you live in the city, you can vote for Evans or Powell, Ponder or Foster.

Evans vs. Powell: The Candidates

Evans and Powell were extremely close in June’s primary, which Powell won. That was a surprise, since Evans is a four-year incumbent and Powell is a newbie politician who has never run for office.

To learn more about Powell, read my Q&A with him. In summary, he’s a Republican-backed businessman, who is a fan of school reform and hasn’t been endorsed by the teachers union.

Evans, a child psychologist, was elected four years ago, uprooting then-incumbent Mitz Lee with the help of the San Diego Education Association, which endorsed him and funded his race. Bill Freeman, SDEA president, said the union recently endorsed Evans again and has spent about $15,000 on his re-election campaign.

You can learn more about all the candidates from this candidates’ report card that we published in May. The card lays out where each candidate stands on several key issues.

Here’s Evans’ campaign website and here’s Powell’s.

Evans vs. Powell: Analysis

This race is largely a referendum on the performance of the school board during a tumultuous four years.

As the current board president, Evans represents those four years. He needs to convince voters that things have calmed down since a few months ago, when district officials were talking bankruptcy and issued more than 1,400 pink slips to teachers.

Powell has to convince voters that those four years have just made things worse, and that he’s the guy to set the ship straight.

Ponder vs. Foster: The candidates

You can read my Q&A with Bill Ponder here and my Q&A with Marne Foster here. This is Ponder’s campaign website and this is Foster’s.

Ponder, a retired university administrator, has a long way to go in this race. He’ll have to improve significantly on his disappointing show in the primary. But he’s been busy, appearing at school board meetings and selling his candidacy to local media and to the public at events.

His opponent has been less visible. Foster, a mother and educator at the San Diego Community College District, has also been endorsed by the SDEA, which has spent about $15,000 on her campaign, according to Freeman.

Foster was the only candidate who didn’t respond to our candidates report card. She’s not sure if she can make it to our debate at Politifest, but we hope to see her there!

Ponder vs. Foster: Analysis

Foster’s backing from the teachers union and pro-labor school board members Barrera and Kevin Beiser, makes it tempting to label her as a pro-labor candidate. At the one debate where I saw her speak, she spoke carefully when asked about issues like teacher evaluation and employee pay and benefits.

She has also been reluctant to open up about tricky issues. When we asked Foster where she stands on some of the key problems facing the district, she didn’t reply.

Ponder, on the other hand, has been voicing his opinions at every opportunity. A summary: He’s certainly pro-reform, but shies away from the harsher conservative rhetoric embraced by Powell.

Overall Analysis

The face of the school board could change pretty radically this November.

The board has a history of domination by union-friendly candidates. Of the five current members, only one, Scott Barnett, regularly opposes labor-friendly policies.

If Evans is re-elected and Foster replaces Jackson, we probably won’t see the political dynamics of the board change much. But if either or both Powell or Ponder are elected, we could see some backing for the reformist, libertarian-inspired and fiscally conservative policies that Barnett has been pushing fruitlessly for the last two years.

Put simply: Barnett might find himself with an ally come this November, or he could find himself with an old rival and a new board member who has given every indication she’ll carry on opposing him where Jackson left off.

Correction: The original story incorrectly stated the length of time Scott Barnett has been serving on the school board. He has served on it for two years, not four. We regret the error.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at 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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