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It’s a few short weeks until the November election, and San Diego Unified School board president Kevin Beiser is right where he wants to be.
Since he was first elected to the school board in 2010, he’s knocked on doors, listened to parents, helped make a superintendent out of a superstar elementary school principal and worked to pull San Diego Unified out the worst financial tailspin in generations.
The teachers union endorsed him. And voters seem to support him: In the June runoff, Beiser secured 68 percent of the vote over his opponent, Amy Redding.
Except for outgoing trustee Scott Barnett, who’s been perhaps Beiser’s most vocal critic, school board members support their colleague’s re-election.
Beiser’s managed to build an unlikely web of alliances that includes the union, charter schools and wealthy philanthropists like Irwin Jacobs, Malin Burnham and Jack McGrory.
And since January 2011, he’s raised about $141,000 – far more than what his four school board colleagues raised combined.
Supporters praise Beiser’s responsiveness, his accessibility, his ability to get things done for children.
But a competing narrative has emerged during the campaign, one that paints Beiser as a tone-deaf bully whose tireless campaigning can take priority over his classroom duties.
Education as an Escape
It’s not uncommon in political campaigns for candidates to highlight the struggles they’ve overcome through grit, hard work and education.
Beiser declined to be interviewed for this story, but people who’ve worked with him back up details he shared with an LGBT publication in February.
Beiser told that reporter he grew up in a suburb outside Portland, Ore., the youngest of three boys for the first part of his childhood. After his mother remarried, he gained another brother and baby sister.
Poverty weaves through Beiser’s bio. Education is a tool to break the cycle of poverty, he writes on his campaign website. He describes sticking cardboard in the bottom of his shoes, the feeling of having the water cut off, the time the family lived in a tent behind his grandma’s house.
Last summer, Beiser told me school was his escape. The books and letters came easy, and his father expected success out of him.
He went on to earn a B.A. from Willamette University in Salem, Ore.
Around that time, he took a job in a Walmart photo division, where he worked for several years after he graduated. He’s since credited his box-store experience with giving him the ability to balance budgets and look for ways to reduce expenses.
Eventually, Beiser landed in San Diego, where he earned a master’s in secondary education from the University of Phoenix. He spent time working at a juvenile hall, O’Farrell Charter School and the Sweetwater Union High School District, where he is a middle school math teacher.
Today, Beiser is a decorated teacher who’s won awards for his work in the classroom, and his advocacy for arts and music programs in schools.
Each accolade is another step away from that tent in Oregon.
Eying a Bigger Prize
Beiser ran his first campaign on his teaching experience. His promises to keep class sizes small resonated with the teachers union.
In a matter of months he was laying the groundwork for re-election. It should have been downhill for Beiser; school board incumbents have historically been tough to unseat. Instead, it’s been a mad, glad-handing dash.
Compared with the $11,700 Redding has raised – $5,000 of which came from a loan she took out – Beiser’s mammoth $141,000 campaign haul seems like overkill. Especially when you consider the fact that the job pays $18,000 a year, plus benefits, and has minimal political clout.
But the gig has been a launching pad for a handful of local politicians, including former Mayor Bob Filner, Rep. Susan Davis, state Sen. Marty Block and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber.
Publicly, Beiser has demurred on questions about his aspirations, telling one reporter in February that his singular focus is his work on the school board.
But Elizabeth Leventhal, who worked as Beiser’s campaign manager from about 2010 to September 2013, says Beiser spoke often about higher office, and even flirted with a 2012 run for an open Assembly seat. But around that time, Beiser’s mom was diagnosed with cancer and he decided he wasn’t ready to make the leap.
“He decided to put on a couple more years on the school board, then he’d be ready,” Leventhal said.
Leventhal said that before she and Beiser had a falling out and parted ways, Beiser had his eyes on Toni Atkins’ Assembly seat, which will open up when the speaker is termed out in 2016.
Beiser wouldn’t confirm that detail, but told me in an email: “Any consideration of other offices in the past or currently have been the result of others approaching me about the possibility of running.”
One day in early 2013, Leventhal said she remarked on people who run for Congress, and wondered what made the job so attractive despite the demands and polarization.
Beiser’s emphatic response, Leventhal said, was simply: “Elizabeth, there’s nothing better than being a U.S. congressman.”
It’s a remarkably mid-level dream. But considering the momentum Beiser has gained in his early stages of politicking, it’s not out of the question.
Beiser can be charming, endearing even. Numerous supporters talked about his ability to bring together stakeholders who in past years have throttled each other’s throats.
School board trustee Richard Barrera, who also leads the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said Beiser’s bridge-building ability is a big part of why he’s supported by both the teachers union and the California Charter Schools Association.
Others talk about his responsiveness and ability to move forward stagnating projects.
Gloria Tran, a parent in Scripps Ranch, said for years she pushed the district to air-condition classrooms in her area, where temperatures topped 100 degrees and regularly sent kids to the nurse’s office. But for 15 years, she said, nothing happened.
With Beiser, she said, here was a school board member who finally listened. He pushed the rest of the school board to act and was able to expedite air conditioning for the district’s hottest classrooms.
“Honestly, I would never support him if he wasn’t focused on the children,” said Tran. “But he’s earned it. He’s earned my support.”
But the same tenacity that can advance stalled projects bristled Mike George, a former principal at Taft Middle School, which is in the subdistrict Beiser represents.
George, who supports Beiser’s challenger Redding, worked with Beiser for a couple of years and said he was generally impressed by how involved Beiser was. He said one day, Beiser passed by Taft and saw that the roof needed repairs. A couple of phone calls from Beiser, and the repairs were under way, said George.
But he’s since changed his mind on Beiser.
Last year, the district bought out senior teachers, and to save money, shuffled remaining teachers around to backfill the vacancies instead of making new hires. So schools had to come up with a plan for how they’d cover classes with fewer teachers, while still keeping class sizes small.
When a vice principal at George’s former school stood her ground and fought for more staff, Beiser attacked her personally and accused her of sabotaging the school, George said.
In other words, what upset George wasn’t so much Beiser’s position upholding the district’s staffing changes – it’s the disrespectful way he handled the situation.
Leventhal chalks up the end of her professional relationship with Beiser to his personality traits.
The two met in 2008, when they worked together on fellow Democrat Stephen Whitburn’s campaign for City Council.
Leventhal offered to help Beiser’s school board campaign in 2010. After he won, Beiser invited her back to help run his campaign for re-election. For Beiser, Leventhal fundraised, organized events, acted as chauffeur and prepared his speeches.
In front of kids and parents, he could be charismatic and engaging – even inspiring, she said.
But over time, she said, Beiser grew increasingly demanding and condescending – talking slowly to her as if she were a student in his class. It became harder to reconcile his positive qualities with the side that was manipulative, calculating and political.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say he doesn’t care about kids,” she said. “But I also think they’re very convenient for him.”
One thing about Beiser is sure: He’s visible. At parades, ceremonies, school meetings he’s rubbing elbows with community members – the guy, it seems, is everywhere.
In September, when Lincoln High welcomed students – and lots of media – on the first day of the new school year, there was Beiser, smiling proudly.
His presence didn’t go unnoticed by UPforEd, a parent advocacy group that tweeted: “If #SDUSDboard president Beiser was at Lincoln on the first day of school who was teaching his class in Sweetwater Schools?”
It’s a fair question, considering Beiser’s attendance records at the Chula Vista middle school where he teaches.
Between 2009 and 2014, Beiser’s missed, on average, four weeks of school each year, according to district records.
That more than meets the bar for chronic absence set by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Out of the country’s 40 largest metropolitan districts, teachers, on average, missed 11 days of school during the 2012-2013 school year. Only 16 percent of all teachers were considered chronically absent, which NCTQ defines as missing 18 or more school days a year.
And the financial costs can add up. The Sweetwater Union High School District confirmed it has paid out $12,000 to substitute teachers covering Beiser’s classes.
That amount doesn’t include the days he missed for training, which is often covered by grants, said SUHSD spokesman Manny Rubio. Nor does it take into account the couple dozen days Beiser left school early.
In an email to VOSD, Beiser wrote:
“A vast majority of those days I was serving students of San Diego Unified or engaged in professional development to better serve the students in my class, and they were planned in conjunction with my principal and supported and endorsed by her. My evaluations as a classroom teacher continue to be exemplary.”
Still, students suffer when teachers aren’t in class. That’s true whether Beiser was tending to San Diego Unified duties, attending a training conference or taking a trip to Israel, like he did on the first week of last school year.
When the U-T looked at Beiser’s absences for the 2012-2013 school year, Beiser brushed aside the notion that his absences take anything away from students. Students even have his cell phone number if they need to reach him, he said.
Two Jobs, One Election
For parents, electing a school board member comes down to one question: Who will make the best choices in the interests of children?
It’s a simple question, with a complicated answer.
As Barrera points out, Beiser’s skill set as a teacher makes him well suited for his role as a school board member. As the only K-12 teacher on the school board, he understands the resources teachers need to be most effective.
Beiser’s willing to use his name to spotlight social issues, like equal rights for transgender students.
And, of course, he’s got experience serving on the school board. He’s been on it through the darkest budget days and has proven masterful at bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders.
To a degree, the fate of the district depends on cohesion between school board members, the superintendent and the district staff. Compared with other districts like Los Angeles Unified, the last few years in San Diego Unified have been relatively harmonious.
But the constant campaigning and the missed school days have made an impact on some observers.
Beiser is a teacher and a school board president. His decisions impact students in his classroom and across the second largest school district in the state. The degree to which he’s able to do both effectively, of course, is a matter of perspective.