If you’re a parent in San Diego Unified, you might not know Mike McQuary. But you probably should. As an incoming school board member, his decisions will help shape the district.

McQuary, who ran unopposed for his seat, will be replacing Scott Barnett as trustee of the district’s coastal neighborhoods, or subdistrict C.

Officially, he won’t have the job until after November’s election. The school district has an odd system for school board elections. There’s a June primary, in which candidates battle it out in one of five subdistricts, followed by a November election in which the whole school district votes on the top two candidates.

But shortly before the June primaries, Barnett surprised voters by announcing that he wouldn’t seek another term. After another candidate failed to get the required 200 signatures from people in her area, McQuary was the only person standing.

So who is this man who goes by “Dr. Mike,” and what are his plans for the school district?

Well, to start, McQuary really likes the Rotary Club.

He’s been president of the Mission Bay Rotary Club, where he remains active. It may sound unrelated and a little banal, but the organization’s service-above-self philosophy is a big reason why McQuary said he decided to run.

It’s also something McQuary shares with trustee Kevin Beiser, who’s a member of the same club.

Beiser said he’s known McQuary for years, because he’s volunteered in the community. Leading up to the elections, he said he encouraged McQuary to toss his hat in the ring, thinking there would be a competitive runoff and a good conversation about the district’s issues.

In the end, of course, there was no showdown. Just McQuary.

You can learn a bit about McQuary by taking a glimpse at the resume listed on his website: He’s worked as a teacher, a principal and within county and state offices of education. He has a Ph.D. education from the University of Southern California.

He’s also been a teachers union representative, as well as a chapter president and has helped negotiate contracts through the collective bargaining process.

Also, he’s met the Dalai Lama. If you meet McQuary, he’ll probably tell you about it.

Of course, McQuary has a more textured story to tell, one that he’s just now starting to roll out to for a public audience.

He’s prone to sports metaphors that backfill his past and describe his philosophies. That time in high school when he set a pole vault record, for example, taught him that improvement takes time and grit.

His story also borrows from Superintendent Cindy Marten’s, with whom he’s met several times to learn more about the district. Like Marten, he’s interested in community dialogue. In fact, his motto – “working and dreaming together” – saddles against the superintendent’s “Work hard, be kind, dream big, no excuses.”

And while he’s just now stepping onto a more public stage, he’s been doing his homework behind the scenes.

For Suzy Reid, a parent and vice chair of a district advisory group, an effective trustee would be a reliable voice for students in subdistrict C, which includes schools in La Jolla, Mission Bay, Point Loma and Kearny Mesa.

Reid said people in the district unfairly assume all schools in the area have the resources they need, when in fact there are a lot of in-betweener schools that have borne the brunt of budget cuts over the years.

These schools don’t receive a lot of state and federal support because they don’t have high numbers of students living in poverty, and they don’t generate a lot of private money through Parent-Teacher Associations or school foundations.

“But we still deserve someone that’s going to fight for our schools that can’t bring in a lot of external funding,” she said.

Reid is optimistic that because McQuary has been a teacher, he’ll better understand what students need in the classroom.

His background might also be part of the reason why he’s supported by the teachers union.

If Beiser wins his upcoming election, the five-person school board will consist entirely of labor-friendly board members.

Because Barnett wasn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers by going rogue on votes, I asked McQuary how he’d respond to concerns about a like-minded school board.

“I would say that having like-minded people on the school board because they’re supported by the union is an overly simplistic way to put it,” he said.

“I think the effort to try to put us in one camp or another is not effective and is not reality. I would say that if we’re like-minded it’s because we care about the betterment of the district and students,” he said.

McQuary said because he’s worked with schools as well as business groups, he can see issues through multiple lenses. It’s not about one side winning and another losing, he said, it’s about finding the facts and striking a balance.

McQuary hopes he can bring to the district a measured approach that helps minimize the deviousness, labeling and deep personal attacks he’s seen play out between school districts and the public.

Working to transcend the polarized rhetoric is an admirable goal. But if San Diego Unified’s recent history is any indication, it may be more realistic to brace for the inevitable.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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