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One thing about San Diego Unified Trustee Scott Barnett is certain: He’s not afraid to go rogue.
The budget wonk turned school board maverick has a distinctive voice and a talent for turning a phrase. In fact, he’s fired off so many colorful quotes that VOSD has dedicated an entire post to Barnett-isms.
Barnett said he and his colleagues unanimously agree 95 percent of the time, especially when it comes to the big stuff. When they wrangled Cindy Marten to serve as superintendent — which Barnett said has been the most significant decision they’ve made — they all agreed she was the right person for the job.
But it’s also clear that Barnett at times sees himself as the only one in touch with reality, especially when it comes to finances.
Since he was elected in 2010, it’s been Barnett’s primary goal to leave the district in better financial shape than he found it, he said.
His signature rallying cry has been to rethink the district’s approach to land sales, which he’s likened to selling grandma’s jewelry to pay rent, burning furniture to heat the house and “taking (a) prized milk cow and slaughtering it for beef.”
Barnet thinks San Diego Unified made its biggest mistake when it voted to sell off the Mission Beach Center for $18.5 million. To make matters worse, he said, it sold the property to a group planning to build condominiums, which the neighborhood had opposed.
“Not only did we sell off one of the most valuable pieces of property on the planet, we spat in the face of the community,” Barnett said.
He said most of the important proposals he’s brought to the table have been undercut, and that in many ways the district’s financial outlook is worse than it was three years ago.
“In all frankness, I think I’m the only person who has consistently forwarded specific ways to generate money,” he said. “The rest of my colleagues are grabbing their ankles and praying for more money.”
Because he’s got a history of striking out alone, we decided to round up a few other times that Barnett found himself on the short end of a vote.
Key quote: “I feel like I’m in a 3-D movie with my board colleagues, but I’m the only one who’s been given the glasses.”
In 2012, when San Diego Unified was gearing up to lay off over 1,500 employees and faced (another) overwhelming budget shortfall, Barnett recommended that the district do something radical: Declare insolvency. Here’s how VOSD described it in 2012:
“It’s a financial kamikaze that would place the district in the direct control of a state-appointed trustee. The superintendent would be fired and the school board would be relegated to an advisory board, with the trustee making all of San Diego Unified’s budgetary decisions instead of politicians.
But Barnett thinks there are distinct benefits to declaring insolvency now. He says the district could keep schools fully staffed until next spring, and he says it’s time for a new system of running city schools, since the school board has effectively run local education into the ground.”
In the end, the district never took Barnett up on his advice. The layoffs were issued and the district was able to stay afloat through land sales and other maneuvers.
But the proposal illustrates Barnett’s willingness to think unconventionally and focus on the bottom line, even when the solution seems implausible.
Capital Appreciation Bonds
Key quote: “Financing iPads over 30 years is just stupid.”
One of the biggest controversies in recent years to hit San Diego Unified, as well as neighboring Poway, is the use of capital appreciation bonds.
These exotic bonds allow school districts to borrow money and wait years to make payments on its debt – all the while, accruing massive interest.
Using this approach, the district used a series of 40-year bonds to buy 10,729 iPads. The interest attached to this purchase means roughly $540 iPads will end up costing the district more than $4,000 apiece.
Barnett said he opposed them even before they were controversial, and was the lone dissenter on a bond vote in 2011. “Even before the outcry, I was the only one to oppose them,” he said.
As a way to avoid more exotic bonds, Barnett pushed Prop Z., which voters passed in 2012.
Meatless Mondays and a Nuclear Reactor
Key quote: “I get annoyed when our board time is being used by purely bumper sticker political issues that don’t affect our kids.”
Barnett calls them “bumper sticker resolutions” — issues that he says the school board has no business meddling in.
Case in point: The school board’s resolution to oppose the restart of a nuclear reactor at the San Onofre station until more testing was done to ensure its safety. Barnett said the resolution, proposed by trustees Kevin Beiser and Richard Barrera, was really a thinly veiled political gimmick.
“To me it was a political gesture experimenting on our kids. The only time I get irritated is when my colleagues use kids as guinea pigs to promote a public agenda,” Barnett told VOSD.
Barnett shares a similar opinion on the school board’s decision last June to tackle public enemy No. 1: meat-heavy diets. In a move that trustees Beiser and John Lee Evans said would get children into the habit of eating healthy, the school board voted yes to going meatless on Mondays.
Barnett said the schools already have vegetarian options on the menu every day. The change might even harm the kids from low-income families who need the protein and calories, he argued.
Key quote: “It was poor behavior by the kids, but it was also a poor decision for the adults to issue mass suspensions.”
Before Miley Cyrus was twerking on the national stage, sparking a national outcry against exaggerated booty-shaking, there were the girls at Scripps Ranch High School.
In case you missed it, here’s a recap: A group of students made a Youtube video that featured some students gyrating to explicit rap lyrics. The school’s reaction was swift and severe. More than 30 students were suspended for two days for what was called sexual harassment and lewd behavior.
The situation took a turn for the creepy when former San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba referred to the group as “28 white females and 3 male students of color,” injecting racial undertones where there had been none.
Barnett pushed for trustees to review the school’s decision at a later school board meeting, and examine whether the punishment fit the crime. Barnett wasn’t completely alone on this one —Beiser also called for the review — but he was in the minority.
Key quote: “If we’re in the business of public schools, our business should be done in public.”
Barnett told VOSD that behind closed doors, he’s been rallying other trustees to discuss more of its matters in public.
With several exceptions, California’s open meetings law requires school boards to discuss district matters in public. A few exemptions are personnel issues, the circumstances behind student expulsions, and details of real estate negotiations. In these cases, the board still has to fill the public in on what’s been discussed, but they can stick to the basics.
Barnett said he wants to air more district laundry in a public space. For example, the public should be aware of the details of negotiations over teacher contracts.
Changing Prop. Z Policies
Key quote: “This happens. I come up with a good idea and then someone bastardizes it.”
In a recent decision, the school board voted to raise the bar on charter schools seeking Prop. Z funds. Now, a charter school must have been established for five years, and have been approved for an additional five-year charter before it’s eligible for bond money.
Ironically, it was Barnett that pushed the school board to come up with policies in the first place — he just didn’t expect the result.
Key quote (Twitter): “On many days in my School Board gig I feel this way” …
On many days in my School Board gig I feel this way pic.twitter.com/EUQdZGIsIG
— ScottBarnett (@ScottBarnett) February 10, 2014
Not much to add to this one, really.