The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


In June 2014, when parent Amy Redding squared off against incumbent Kevin Beiser for a spot on the San Diego Unified school board, news outlets handed quick victory to Beiser. Redding was miffed. The race wasn’t over. Redding would see Beiser again in November.

That’s because earning a spot on the San Diego school board requires two elections. Any number of candidates can face off in the June primaries. Only residents in a candidate’s sub-district cast their votes.

Learning Curve 2016-01 (2)

From there, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November, no matter how overwhelming a candidate’s victory in the primary. In November, school board candidates must appeal to voters city-wide. (Beiser beat Redding again in November, and is in the midst of his second term on the school board.)

San Diegans used to elect City Council members the same way. But in 1988, voters amended the City Charter so that only people who live in a candidate’s district choose their Council members. If a candidate earns more than 50 percent in the June primary, the race is over.

San Diego Unified, on the other hand, kept its election process the same. The resulting system is convoluted and dumb.

Election rules for the school district are laid out by the San Diego City Charter, but neither the City Council nor the mayor has a say in school district operations. No other K-12 school district in the county does it like this.

Campaigning for two elections takes a lot of money. That’s one reason an endorsement from the teachers union is so important for candidates: Candidates who score the endorsement benefit from union money, its motivated voters and name recognition.

Back in 1988, those who supported a change to the City Council elections process argued races had become spending sprees dominated by special interest groups.

Ironically, in 2010, when a group of philanthropists and community members set out to change the makeup of the San Diego Unified school board, trustee Richard Barrera cited special interests as a reason why the district shouldn’t change its election process.

Barrera saw San Diegans 4 Great Schools, the group trying to change the school board, as a Trojan horse for downtown business interests and controversial school reforms.

“Why should any special group of people have the ability to take decisions away from voters?” Barrera said at the time.

This all begs an important question, which it so happens, was sent in by one of our readers.

Question: How can San Diego Unified change the way school board members are elected? – Richard J. Castro, concerned reader and voter

Before we start, I feel like I need to mention how difficult it was to find a definitive answer to this question. At one point, I’d enlisted a small coalition of people from San Diego Unified, the city attorney’s office, the San Diego Registrar of Voters and the San Diego County Office of Education. And even then details proved elusive.

I say that not to complain, but to highlight the very odd relationship between the city of San Diego and its school district.

The short answer is that changing the way San Diego Unified runs its elections would require a change to the City Charter. And any change to the City Charter would have to go before voters. The way voters changed City Council elections in 1988 is similar to the way they’d have to change it here.

The more relevant question is what would need to happen before the initiative would make its way to the ballot.

In 2011, San Diegans 4 Great Schools wanted to add four additional members to the school board. A committee made up of parents, university leaders and a business representative would appoint the four new members. The group started a petition to get the proposal onto the ballot, and collected 133,000 signatures, 40 percent more than what they needed.

In the end, though, a large number of those signatures were thrown out – and San Diegans 4 Great Schools fell just shy of the number of signatures they needed.

The point is, a petition is one way to get the initiative on a ballot. Another way would be for the City Council to propose an amendment to the City Charter, which would still have to go before voters.

Among members of my coalition, there’s some disagreement on whether the San Diego school board could also propose the initiative, and if it did, whether the City Council would still have to approve it before it went to the ballot. Folks directed me to Andra Donovan, San Diego Unified’s general counsel, but she declined to weigh in.

It might not matter, anyway – even if the school board could propose the change. All four remaining members of the current school board were backed by the teachers union, which is doing just fine under the current system. It’s unlikely the school board would propose such a change.

What’s Happening on the Ed Beat

The biggest story in San Diego Unified this week is the school board trying to fill Marne Foster’s seat on the school board. Board members are looking to appoint an interim trustee to serve through December, when the next elected school board member replaces whoever is appointed. (The appointed interim board member can run for re-election in June and November.)

At a meeting Wednesday night, board members heard from some of the 16 candidates who applied for the role.

Applicants had an opportunity to address the board. Their remarks ranged from fiery stump speeches to business-like monologues.

In the end, board members winnowed down the list to four applicants: Brenda Campbell, a former area superintendent whose tenure was not without controversy; Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a retired educator who has since worked with the district as a consultant; newcomer Erica Dibello-Hitta, a teacher in Sweetwater Union High School District and LaShae Collins, a parent and staffer for Assemblywoman Shirley Weber.

In a rare occurrence, members of the school board actually disagreed on something. They split over whether to support Collins. Trustees Richard Barrera and Kevin Beiser did not support her; John Lee Evans and Mike McQuary welcomed her.

Recently, teachers union president Lindsay Burningham said Collins has given the union “cause for concern,” because Weber has proposed reforms at the state level aimed at teacher tenure and teacher evaluations – measures that met strong resistance from teachers unions. That might help explain why Barrera and Beiser favor Campbell and Whitehurst-Payne.

Ed Reads of the Week

 How Scalia’s death may save teachers unions for now (Los Angeles Times)

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could be a tactical gain for teachers unions – representing a major blow to a California lawsuit that had been expected to weaken the financial muscle of teachers unions across the country, writes Howard Blume.

• Life After Vergara: A roadmap for teacher policies (University of San Diego and San Diego State University study)

A week before the California Court of Appeal hears oral argument in the Vergara v. California case, researchers from USD and SDSU are out with new recommendations on teacher policies.

Among them: Increase the time it takes California teachers to earn tenure from 18 months to five years; base tenure decisions on performance evaluations and require all districts to evaluate all teachers, every year.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess teachers unions aren’t going to like these recommendations. But Students Matter, the group that’s representing plaintiffs in the Vergara suit, said in a press release that it welcomed the report.

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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