This post has been updated.

“If you don’t care about education, we will make you,” Scott Lewis said in a VOSD podcast back in September.

That might sound like the sort of bold proclamation someone makes when they get carried away by feelings. But here, Scott is nodding to something deeper about how closely we as parents and community members pay attention to what’s happening in our local schools.

Learning Curve-01

That is, we all say we value education. But, for whatever reason – maybe due to a lack of understanding, maybe a feeling that their voices won’t be heard – many people care about schools only from a distance. They don’t actively engage school topics through social media. They don’t show up at school board meetings, or vote in school board elections.

Hey, I’m not judging you. But it’s my job to figure out what’s missing. That’s part of the reason I started this column, so I could answer common questions about how schools and districts work.

But if there is a sense of apathy when it comes to schools – more than, say, interest in how our city government works – it would have the most direct impact on school board races. Which might help explain why we have school board members who strolled into their seats unopposed, or why we have a trustee currently under investigation by San Diego’s district attorney who still isn’t facing a serious challenger.

And with three school board members, Marne Foster, Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans, up for re-election this year, it’s a good time to take a closer look at school board races. You’ll see voter apathy brought up by a couple of candidates who were unsuccessful in their bids.

This question is an amalgam of many several I’ve gotten in the past several months, most of which came in after news about Foster reached a boiling point.

Question: Why is it so difficult to beat an incumbent in a school board race?  

In a commentary for the San Diego Union-Tribune last week, Mark Powell, who unsuccessfully ran against Evans for school board in 2012, explained why he thinks nobody will challenge Foster for a school board seat.

The thrust of his argument comes down to the unusual way San Diego Unified school board races work.

Candidates have to survive two elections. In the June primary, they battle in one of five smaller sub-districts. The top two candidates then advance to the November election, where the entire school district votes. It costs a lot of money to campaign through two elections, which weeds out candidates who don’t have strong financial backing.

Here’s why the system is weird, as we explained in 2010:

No other K-12 school district in San Diego County is elected this way. It is a hybrid of district elections — in which voters in a small slice of a city or school district elect their own representative — and at-large elections in which the whole area votes.

But it was actually the same way that San Diego used to elect its City Council. Even though the city has no power over the school district, schools’ election rules have been laid out in the city charter since 1939.

Voters scrapped that system for City Council 22 years ago, replacing it with district-only elections to ensure that minorities had a better shot at being heard.

But the system stayed the same for the school board — and attracts the same criticisms.

In 2010, a group of parents, philanthropists and community leaders initiated an effort to expand the school board from five to nine members, arguing the move would stabilize and depoliticize the district. But by the following year, that effort fizzled away and the system went unchanged.

What that all means is that school board candidates – no matter how  well-liked or known they are by voters in their corners of San Diego – need to make their case to voters city-wide.

I reached out to Vlad Kogan, a former VOSD reporter who has since become a political science professor at Ohio State University. If there’s a lack of engagement in school board elections, Kogan said, it’s less likely to be an issue of voter apathy, and more about lack of voter knowledge.

School board elections generally don’t attract a lot of candidates. They’re fairly low-profile positions and are not well-paid (San Diego Unified school board members make about $18,000 a year, plus benefits). So you may get some parents and independent candidates, but you’re more likely to see ambitious politicos hoping to use the position as a launch pad.

The low salary is enough to weed out some candidates. But then there’s a general lack of name recognition. And Kogan said this is where candidates really benefit from scoring an endorsement by the teachers union.

Kogan lists three big reasons why the union endorsement is so valuable:

• The endorsement will resonate with teachers, a motivated group that will show up to vote.

• Candidates will benefit from union resources, whether it’s money to pay for signs and fliers or people to canvass.

• And a union endorsement listed on the ballot is a good signal to voters, if they haven’t done a lot of research, that a candidate has been vetted.

The union representing San Diego Unified teachers and counselors has yet to weigh in on upcoming races, but it endorsed both Evans and Foster in their last elections. Barrera ran unopposed in both 2008 and 2012.

Bill Ponder, who challenged Foster in 2012, said school board elections are technically a nonpartisan race, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of running a campaign, and needing resources to do it, the race gets partisan very quickly.

“You have a rigged process that is put into place to support individuals and their interests, and not the interests of kids. In some ways I was naive to think that voters would recognize that, but I was wrong. I didn’t realize how strong those forces are. I didn’t realize they would trump common sense,” he said.

That’s the reason that Ponder said, unequivocally, he has no interest in running against Foster in the upcoming race, though people have approached him to do so.

Amy Redding echoes a lot of what Ponder said. Redding lost to Kevin Beiser in 2014. She was outspent and outmatched. But the one piece that frustrates Redding most about that race is that she had so few opportunities to debate Beiser in public.

The two faced off in a short debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, and another just before the November election. Redding called for more debates, but Beiser didn’t accept the challenge. Why should he have? He already had major endorsements and name recognition. More debates could have benefited Redding by getting her name in front of more voters.

“It’s interesting, because you see public frustration over how the district is run, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t translate to the ballot box,” Redding said. “I don’t know if it’s that people just don’t care about school board races or if people feel defeated against this massive bureaucracy that takes so long to move. I think there’s also a sense that ‘if I just focus on my kids, and get them through the system, that’s all I can hope to control.’”

Redding didn’t let me off the hook completely. She pointed out that the press is important in getting the issues and candidates in front voters. Compared with city council races, press for school board races is lacking.

“I’d just love to see more competitive races,” Redding said. “The more competitive they are, the more press they get, the more people learn about the candidates.”

Ed Reads of the Week

• Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery (The New York Times)

In Detroit schools, helpful students volunteer to smash the cockroaches in the classroom. There are also rats and dripping water.

This story paints a post-apocalyptic scene. “Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse. On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools,” reports the Times.

And if kids attending class in these conditions isn’t enough to convince people something needs to be done, here’s why it matters to the city of Detroit: “Residents wonder how the city can ever recoup its lost population and attract young families if the public schools are in abysmal shape.”

• How A Great Teacher Cultivates Veggies (And Kids) In The Bronx — In 17 Photos (NPR)

If you need a chaser from the doom and gloom, head over to the Bronx, where one teacher (and his class) makes bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.

This is a great profile of a quirky teacher whose classroom has more plants than desks. One student referred to him as Father Nature. An NPR reporter said that calling him “a science teacher” is like saying fire is hot. Wonderful to remember teachers like this exist.

• Learning as a Science (American RadioWorks)

If you read last week’s Learning Curve, you’ll remember I looked at the widespread misconception that students learn most effectively in one specific style – through sight, sound or touch. It was good timing.

This podcast, which came out the following day, looks at learning styles and other ideas teachers hold dear, but aren’t supported by evidence.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the number of school board trustees up for re-election in 2016. We’ve updated the post to include Richard Barrera.

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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