San Diego Unified school board president Kevin Beiser has got to be mad at somebody.

A week before the election, and on the same day as his only public debate with challenger Amy Redding, the district detonated a bomb: About 3,000 of its high school students are falling short on the college prep classes they’ll need to graduate in 2016.

The numbers are even worse for students of color, and for those learning English.

The stats released by the district gave Redding something to pounce on. The school board has ignored the looming problem until now, she said.

“The district should have been aware of this the minute that (school board members voted for it). Because there were parent leaders going before the board telling them they needed to monitor this,” Redding said.

Beiser’s defense, pointing to that time in 2013 when San Diego Unified was a finalist for the Broad Prize – a prestigious award for urban school districts – seemed unconvincing.

The debate started lethargically. It was sparsely attended – only about 40 people showed up to the Allied Gardens middle school where the League of Women Voters hosted the forum.

This close to Election Day, with a good portion of ballots already mailed in, impact will probably be negligible. Still, a late debate is better than no debate.

Redding has a background in science and biotech and has served for years on PTA groups, and school- and district-level advisory committees. She knows her stuff. Few parents or members of the public understand the nuances of school finance as well as she does.

But when says she’s not a politician, she means it. She often talks without inflection, and has a habit of speaking in school jargon – Tiger Teams, GATE students, Title I funds, supplanting versus supplementing – that can confuse the uninitiated listener.

Beiser has all the advantages of a school board incumbent. He’s accustomed to the spotlight. People recognize his face. He’s able to highlight the things he’s done while serving on the school board – something Redding necessarily can’t match.

But that same experience can work against him. During the debate, Redding held over his head choices he made – like voting for teacher pay raises before restoring furloughed teaching days. The gist of her case: Beiser puts teachers before students.

And while Besier is accustomed to the spotlight, he’s not exactly a ringer. Politicians often pivot away from questions they don’t want to answer. Done artfully, the distraction is seamless.

But Beiser’s pivots last night were flat-footed and clumsy. Take, for example, the question to school board candidates about whether they were motivated to run for higher office, and whether they’d serve a full four-year term if elected.

“I’m a classroom teacher. This is my life’s work,” Beiser said. “I love working to turn around underperforming schools like we did at Grainger,” he said, referring to a Chula Vista school where he taught.

He circled around a bit, then added: “Any consideration of running for higher office is based upon people approaching me. And I think that that’s fascinating.”

In short, he didn’t answer the question.

Both candidates’ performances were imperfect – a fact punctuated by their underwhelming closing statements.

Most notably, Beiser used his to jab at Redding, calling her out for missing other opportunities to debate.

But Redding took the bait; saying she hasn’t avoided debates, just happened to be busy on the nights Beiser wanted to spar. If nothing else, it was a missed opportunity for Redding, who could have driven home the recent graduation data.

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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