The San Diego Unified School District, which not long ago was teetering on the brink of financial collapse, is now looking optimistically forward to years of potential growth and investment.

Steering the ship is a newly formulated school board. The teachers union, for years a bitter adversary of the district, has a new leadership team that has pledged to work with the trustees to move local schools forward.

Meanwhile, the Poway Unified School District has garnered national scorn for its billion-dollar bond deal, which saddles future taxpayers with huge debt repayments because the district wanted to spend without asking residents to pay their way. And Poway is just one of hundreds of districts across the state that has bet the house on bond deals.

It’s been a big year in public education.

We’ve taken a new approach to covering education over the past 12 months or so. As part of an overall shift in philosophy at Voice of San Diego, we decided to focus on selected narratives within the education world. Instead of doing something about everything, we’ve tried to do everything about something.

We want to be the definitive voice on the relationship between the teachers union and San Diego Unified. We’ve striven to fully understand complicated issues like the district’s evolving approach to teaching special education and city schools’ labyrinthine budget process.

This year, we paid attention to education issues affected by November’s election. We chose key debates to explore, including teacher assessment and the impact of layoffs at local schools. And we’ve aimed to define the discussion on controversial capital appreciation bonds at a local, state and national level.

This new approach doesn’t mean we’ve hit everything, by far. There are lots of other important stories going on, including the debate over selling property at city schools and the unraveling scandal at the Sweetwater Union School District.

Let’s take a look back at some of the big narratives we’ve focused on this year:

Poway Unified and the Controversy Over Capital Appreciation Bonds

Bonds. Yawn, right?

Yet the arcane world of municipal finance was the setting for our most talked-about and best-read education story this year.

It helps, of course, when there are astronomical amounts of money involved.

We didn’t break the story about the Poway Unified School District’s extraordinary borrowing practices. That honor goes to Joel Thurtell, a blogger from Michigan, who first raised the issue on his blog.

But our coverage of the issue helped start a national conversation on the extraordinary lengths California school districts have gone to in recent years to borrow money.

Check out our first story on Poway’s billion-dollar bond. Then read this follow-up, which outlined similar deals around San Diego County. But please don’t miss this story on possibly the most extraordinary aspect of Poway’s bond deal: the millions of dollars in extra cash the district squeezed from its deals.

That extra cash will eventually cost Poway residents almost $190 million to pay off, thanks to the bond deals’ extraordinary interest rates. The attorney general has said the deals were illegal. It’s an important story about financial practices that could set a worrying precedent for districts and taxpayers statewide.

There’s been a lot written about capital appreciation bonds since our story. The best of the bunch were the stories in the Los Angeles Times and Financial Times and this great video piece by Reuters blogger Felix Salmon.

And there’s plenty to look for in the new year, particularly legislation that has been promised to curb the use of the controversial instruments.

The Changing Leadership and Fortunes at San Diego Unified

• We covered this year’s election extensively, from Q-and-As with the school board candidates, to comprehensive coverage of three propositions that would have an impact on local education.

Perhaps the most important election stories in our archive are this guide to Proposition 30, along with this election-night analysis. Far from a panacea, education finance experts worry that Proposition 30, which provides billions more tax dollars for schools, may not make much of a dent after years of cutbacks to state education funding.

• We still don’t know much about the San Diego Unified school board’s newest member, Marne Foster. Foster, who handily beat opponent Bill Ponder to replace Shelia Jackson in southeastern San Diego, so far has been unable to sit down and talk shop.

We hope to learn more about Foster’s ambitions and policies in the new year.

• Meanwhile, the district has close to $3 billion to spend on new facilities thanks to the passing of Proposition Z, one of the largest successful bond measures in California history.

Proposition Z, which raises property taxes by $60 for every $100,000 of assessed value, is largely a mechanism for the district to borrow money without reverting to capital appreciation bonds. We explained the bond’s impact here and also drilled into the bond proponents’ claims about cost savings in this explainer.

A New Direction for the Teachers Union

Driven by charismatically tough, old-school leaders, the union has metamorphosed into a hardline organization that’s become ever-more confrontational.

That’s how I described the San Diego Education Association in this story back in February. The piece, one of the most-read education stories on our site this year, catalogued the union’s shift in recent years toward a tough, isolationist approach under leaders Camille Zombro and Craig Leedham.

A few weeks after our story broke, both Zombro and Leedham were gone.

As the district negotiated an historic deal with the union, Zombro was voted out and Leedham was placed on administrative leave. Zombro has since formed a splinter group that has been largely unsuccessful in driving union policy. Leedham has sued the SDEA for wrongful dismissal.

Under new President Bill Freeman, the union agreed to make concessions to save jobs. It also inked a deal to create a joint union-district committee to discuss budget issues. As I covered in this story, the concessions didn’t stop most teachers from getting raises anyway, but they did bail the district out of a crippling deficit, for at least a year.

The coming school year may be another tough one for local labor negotiations.

All eyes are on Sacramento and Gov. Jerry Brown to see how much, if any, state education funding will increase in the 2013-14 school year. The governor’s preliminary budget will be released in January and we’ll be watching to see what strain it will place on district-union relations and whether the two parties will continue talking.

Other Issues: Teacher Evaluation, Layoffs and Special Ed

San Diego has been absent from a revolution in teacher evaluations taking place elsewhere in the country.

That was the conclusion of this story that delved into an issue that has been high on the agenda of education reformers for decades.

The piece examined the largely nonexistent approach to teacher evaluation within the district and dispelled claims that San Diego Unified is tackling the issue under the guise of a program called “professional learning communities.”

As the district enters a period of fiscal calm, we’ll be watching to see whether it starts to tackle this issue properly, as school board members have pledged to do.

• Some of the most emotive reporting I’ve done this year involved getting into the classroom.

This series of three blog posts, which incorporated some short videos I shot on my iPhone, sought to bring San Diegans into schools wracked by layoffs. In the end, the layoffs were avoided, but I think the posts remain a poignant reminder of the impact budget woes can have on students.

• A final issue I have taken an occasional look at is the fascinating world of special education.

As the husband of a special ed teacher, I’m always interested in examining different approaches to teaching children with disabilities, and late last year, I spent a few weeks learning about San Diego Unified’s “inclusion” approach to special ed. Inclusion involves bringing children with special needs into the general ed classroom, where they can learn alongside their nondisabled peers.

My conclusions, as outlined in this post: Inclusion works brilliantly for many kids when implemented well. San Diego Unified didn’t do so brilliantly. A key criticism: It failed to mandate special ed training for general ed teachers, meaning they effectively had to become special ed teachers overnight.

Lastly, I’ve also drilled into the fees charged by San Diego Unified to charter schools for special ed services. This ongoing saga will doubtless continue into next year.

I’m always interested in hearing from you. Please get in touch with ideas for new (or old) narratives that I should be focusing on.

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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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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

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