Marne Foster is gone, but the labor-heavy San Diego Unified school board will retain its power structure for now.
Tuesday night, trustees unanimously selected Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a career educator who has worked with the school district as a consultant, to fill the spot left vacant by Foster, who three weeks ago pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned.
Now the school board will try to refocus and move forward. They chose to do that with Whitehurst-Payne, who will represent Subdistrict E, which covers a swath of southeastern San Diego neighborhoods.
In doing so, the board has preserved the power structure that existed before Foster stepped down — one that is uniformly tilted toward labor. From 2014 until the day Foster resigned, all five school board members were supported by the teachers union.
And because Whitehurst-Payne will now run as an incumbent in the election to fill the spot for the term that begins in January 2017, the board has also set the terms of the upcoming race. Whitehurst-Payne’s appointment runs through December.
The board had earlier narrowed down the appointment list to four candidates, but besides Whitehurst-Payne, LaShae Collins was the only other candidate who has announced a run for a full term.
A good number of Collins supporters turned out for the meeting, including a professor emeritus at San Diego State, where Collins works as an adjunct professor in the Africana Studies department. Chevelle Newell, a board member of the Martin Luther King Democratic Club and a staff member for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, highlighted a letter of support Atkins wrote on Collins’ behalf. Akilah Weber voiced support on behalf of her mom, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber. Collins works as Weber’s district director.
Teachers union president Lindsay Burningham said at Tuesday’s meeting that the union doesn’t officially endorse candidates until they’ve each been interviewed and vetted by union members.
But if Whitehurst-Payne scored the endorsement in the upcoming months, it wouldn’t be a shocker. The union endorsed her in 2004, when she made an unsuccessful run for the same seat against Shelia Jackson. Since then, Whitehurst-Payne has worked with the district as a consultant and served on a task force to help San Diego Unified recruit and retain more teachers.
Edith Smith, who for years has been involved with schools in southeastern San Diego, urged the board to steer clear of a labor-backed candidate for its temporary appointment. (As a labor organizer, Richard Barrera recruited Foster for the spot on the board. He got help from behind-the-scenes labor leader Jim Mahler).
“A few years ago, we needed a representative in district E. And the union went and got us a representative. And that really didn’t work out very well for us. Now we’re in crisis. So I would really consider not giving us that person that is union-backed for this temporary time,” Smith said.
It didn’t sway the board. In the end, all four school board members choose Whitehurst-Payne.
Board members said they liked her understanding of the role of school board members, and how they interact with the superintendent. They also appreciated that Whitehurst-Payne is familiar with the pressing need to recruit and retain teachers. Districts across the state are facing a teacher shortage, San Diego Unified among them. Now, they’ll have someone on the board who understands the staffing urgency.
A number a forces worked against Collins.
Burningham told the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this month that Collins has given the union “cause for concern,” because she’s a staffer in Weber’s office. Weber has proposed reforms at the state level aimed at teacher tenure and teacher evaluations – measures that met strong resistance from teachers unions.
To Bill Ponder, who unsuccessfully ran against Foster in 2012, Burningham’s comment sent a clear message that teachers union members should be wary of Collins.
And Collins herself may have fanned the flames in her message to the school board. Of the four candidates, Collins was the only one who was critical of the current board. Her appointment, Collins argued, “will help restore some trust and credibility to the board.”
That statement certainly didn’t win her any friends on the board. Barrera, for example, maintains the Foster ordeal hasn’t cost the board any trust or credibility in the first place.
By November, when residents city-wide cast their votes in the general election, Whitehurst-Payne will have had nine months to make her name resonate with the public.
And if Whitehurst-Payne ultimately scores the endorsement from the teachers union, it will be an important boost: She’ll be able to pull from union coffers for mailers, signs and canvassing efforts.
Ponder saw similar dynamics play out when he ran against Foster. And right now, he sees the deck leaning toward Whitehurst-Payne.
“Collins is going to have an uphill climb to win the election now,” Ponder said, “Unless Weber can get her folks to get a coalition together to go out and get the vote, it’s going to be hard.”