When Mark Powell tells people he’s running for the San Diego County Board of Education this year, he gets encouragement.

“Good luck,” Powell says people tell him. “I hope you beat John Lee Evans this time!”

The thing is, Powell isn’t running against Evans, who is a school board member for San Diego Unified, a seat he won over Powell in 2012.

The fact that people get it wrong isn’t surprising. Most people don’t understand what the San Diego Office of Education does – not to mention the board members who represent it.

The race for County Board of Education is usually a low-profile, low-information sort of contest.

But this year the race has greater meaning. Four of the five spots on the board are up for grabs. The next board members will step in at a crucial time. The contract for Randy Ward, who’s served as county superintendent since 2006, will expire in 2017, and the board will select his replacement.

There’s more at stake, too. Charter school advocates have gotten involved this year, backing four candidates challenging incumbents. They want to make sure charter schools get a fair assessment if they’re ever reviewed by the County Board of Education.

Alicia Muñoz, who was elected in 2015, is the only current board member who won’t have to compete to keep her spot.

Nine candidates will vie for the openings, including four incumbents: Gregg Robinson, Mark Anderson, Guadalupe Gonzalez and Rick Shea. All except Shea are community college educators.

Trustees are selected by voters living in one of five districts in San Diego County. Unlike San Diego Unified school board races, if a County Board of Education candidate pulls more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primaries, the race is over.

The County Office of Education has an annual budget of $591 million and plays a supporting role in the 42 school districts within San Diego County.

San Diego Unified, the largest school district, generates enough revenue to employ its own experts and support its schools. School districts with fewer students, however, rely more heavily on the County Office of Education for support in a number of roles: IT assistance, professional training for teachers or services for at-risk populations, like foster students and those with special needs.

The County Office of Education also operates separate schools and programs for students with special needs, foster students and those who’ve been detained in juvenile detention facilities.

The County Board of Education has less power over its superintendent than do school boards in K-12 school districts.

In a K-12 school district, the board and superintendent work to develop collective-bargaining strategies, and the board must approve the tentative collective-bargaining agreements. At the county level, the superintendent does that with no board involvement.

The county superintendent approves budgets for school districts within the county. Once school districts complete their budgets for the coming year, they submit them to the county. The superintendent and his staff members review them to determine how likely districts are to meet their financial obligations over the next three years.

If everything looks good, budgets are rated as “positive.” If concerns are noted – like there would be if a district could meet its obligations for the next year, but not for the following – they’re listed as “qualified” and the board could take extra steps to monitor their budgets.

If a district is not on track to meet its obligations, that budget is deemed “negative.” If the deficit isn’t remedied, and there isn’t a viable plan to do so, a district could eventually be taken over by the state.

The superintendent similarly reviews each district’s local control accountability plan, a plan the state requires each district create in order to show how budget decisions support goals for academic improvement.

The county superintendent has a greater range of authority than K-12 superintendents, but that’s not to say it doesn’t matter who serves on the County Board of Education.

Just ask the California Charter Schools Association, the state’s main advocacy group for charter schools.

Typically, before a charter school can open, its petition must be approved by the board of education of the district in which it wants to open.

If the petition is denied at the district level charter school leaders can appeal to the County Board of Education.

Recent history shows the county board can be a tough hurdle to clear. In 2014, Thrive, a prospective charter school, submitted its petition to open in San Diego Unified, which shot it down.

A month later, Thrive appealed the decision to the county board, which also denied the school’s petition. In a final push, Thrive appealed to the State Board of Education and won the right to open.

The County Board denied six of the seven charters it has reviewed since 2011. In all of those cases, County Board members went along with the recommendations of staff members who reviewed the document.

So far, only Thrive appealed the county board’s decision to the State Board of Education. But two more charters could follow Thrive’s lead and appeal to the state.

Thrive’s example shows that local, county and state boards have different interpretations about which charter schools have a good chance of succeeding.

And in San Diego County, where controversy over where charter schools can open has heated up, the County Board of Education may play a key role in the future of San Diego County charter schools.

Partly to ensure charter schools get a fair review when they petition to open a school, CCSA is backing four challengers in the election: Powell, Jerry Rindone, Paulette Donnellon and former state Sen. Mark Wyland.

Here’s a quick rundown of the candidates:

District 1

Boundaries include downtown San Diego and overlap with San Diego Unified

Candidates: Incumbent Gregg Robinson and challenger Mark Powell

Gregg Robinson, who voters selected in 2012, is a professor of sociology at Grossmont College and an active member of the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union that represents community college educators. Robinson has been endorsed by the San Diego County Labor Council.

Robinson agrees with CCSA that charter school reviews are central to the race, but said it’s not the only issue.

“I’m not opposed to charter schools in any sense. I know they have a valuable function. But the research is mixed – some do a great job, some don’t. If you’re looking for a generalization, charter schools have great results with low-income students. But most of the charter schools that have come before us, as a board, have been focused on middle-class kids,” he said.

Voters need to consider which candidates have experience recognizing the complex needs of vulnerable students, Robinson said. Tests play an important role, but not as important as what happens outside of school.

“We educate the most vulnerable students in the county. Period. Students who’ve been kicked out of school. Homeless kids. Students in our juvenile detention facilities. There’s no more important educational job in the county than supporting those students with the highest needs,” he said.

The most pressing task for the next board, Robinson said, is picking the next superintendent.

“We need a superintendent who recognizes the complete child. Randy Ward is a very charismatic superintendent. But there’s a tendency among superintendents to see teachers as not-very-bright impediments to reforms that need to be implemented. Randy hasn’t had the time and interest to bring teachers along with him, and it’s been a big strike to moral. So that’s what I’ll be looking for in his replacement,” he said.

In June, Robinson will face off against Powell, an educator and businessman whom the California Charter Schools Association is backing.

In 2012, when Powell ran against Evans for the San Diego Unified board, Powell did well in the primaries, but lost in November’s general election.

He chalks the loss up, in part, to the fact that the AFT sent out a mailer shortly before the election that said Powell had been fired from his previous role as a school principal because he was “an ineffective campus leader.”

That wasn’t true. The claim earned a “huckster propaganda,” VOSD’s harshest fact-check rating. But to Powell, the mailer cost him crucial votes late in the contest.

Powell is an adjunct professor at National University, where he teaches education courses. He’s worked as a teacher and administrator in K-12 schools and has earned accolades as a Realtor.

District 2

Covers a portion of the county from southwestern San Diego to the U.S.-Mexico border

Candidates: Incumbent Guadalupe Gonzalez and challenger Jerry Rindone

Guadalupe Gonzalez is an educator and counselor at San Diego Mesa College. In 2015, she was appointed to complete the remainder of the term on the County Board of Education after her predecessor, Lyn Neylon, vacated the seat. Gonzalez will have support from the San Diego County Labor Council.

Rindone, a former Chula Vista councilman, is a retired teacher and principal. He is backed by CCSA.

District 4

Covers a huge stretch of North County and East County school districts, including Alpine and Borrego Springs school districts

Candidates: Incumbent Mark Anderson and challenger Paulette Donnellon

Mark Anderson is an educator at Miramar College and is a member of the AFT. In 2012, he won his second term on the Board of Education.

Paulette Donnellon is an educator and board member for Escondido Union School District. CCSA supports her.

District 5

Covers a long stretch on the northwestern side of the county, from San Dieguito school district up to Fallbrook

Candidates: Incumbent Rick Shea, and challengers Richard Smith and Mark Wyland

Rick Shea was appointed to the County Board of Education in 2015 after Doug Perkins, the man who beat him in the election a year before, fell ill and had to vacate his seat. Shea, a former juvenile court school teacher, will serve though the end of the year, when he will be replaced or re-elected. VOSD reached out to Shea, but he did not respond.

Richard Smith listed his profession as a retired public educator on his candidacy paperwork. He’s run a quiet campaign so far, even for a County Board of Education race.

There’s a lot more to say about Wyland, who is making a run for the County Board of Education after 14 years on the California Legislature, where he served on the Senate Education Committee.

There are not enough lawmakers like Wyland, lamented SacBee columnist Dan Walters in 2014: “He is, in brief, exactly the sort of person who should be fashioning public policy for 38 million Californians, seeing it as a civic responsibility, not a personal career path.”

Wyland concedes this would be a much lower-profile position than his work in Sacramento, but sees opportunity to build partnerships with education-minded innovators and to highlight strategies that are already working within San Diego County schools.

“There are teachers here doing exceptional, innovative work. But we don’t often hear about what’s working elsewhere or talk about how we can replicate that,” he said.

Wyland is particularly interested in improving STEM initiatives, vocational training and students who are still learning English.

“I’m very passionate about education,” Wyland said. “And I’m not just going to sit back in retirement.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Alicia Muñoz was appointed to her position. She was elected.

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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