Editor’s Note: We’ve received some notes of concern that it was premature to declare the race for county Board of Education settled. As of Wednesday morning, Rick Shea had a lead of 1 percentage point or 1,240 votes over Mark Wyland. The registrar is still counting thousands of votes and this could change or even flip. We’ll update the story and make any correction needed through all of our available channels and email lists when new results, expected this evening, are released. 

Despite unprecedented spending from a group backing charters schools, the two major education boards in San Diego County will remain filled overwhelmingly with union-backed politicians.

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne cruised past LaShae Collins Tuesday night on her way to a seat on the San Diego Unified school board, where she joins four other trustees backed by the local teachers union.

And Rick Shea, backed by a local American Federation of Teachers guild, narrowly beat out Mark Wyland for a seat on the County Board of Education. Whitehurst-Payne and Shea both had the advantage of semi-incumbency, after they were tapped to temporarily fill spots that were vacated early.

Whitehurst-Payne, a retired administrator, will now represent schools in southeastern San Diego, including Lincoln and Crawford High.

Whitehurst-Payne’s election preserves the unified power structure that’s existed on the board since the departure of former school board member Scott Barnett, who often cast the lone vote of opposition. Since Barnett left, all five board members have been backed by the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents San Diego Unified educators.

Local school board elections saw unprecedented spending this season from the state’s biggest charter school advocacy group, California Charter Schools Association Advocates, as well as heavy spending from teachers unions, as both sides vied for more control over the local boards of education that determine which charter schools are allowed to operate.

This election was the first time the charter schools group has supported candidates in local elections. The organization contributed $137,000 to Collins’ campaign for the San Diego Unified board, and another $545,000 to Wyland’s campaign for the County Board of Education.

But it wasn’t enough. CCSA spent $135,000 on Collins during the primaries – which she won – but relatively little during the general election. Whitehurst-Payne pulled in at least $465,000 in campaign contributions, including $350,000 from the local teachers union.

Shea benefitted from at least $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, Guild Local 1931, which represents community college faculty. 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’s victory preserves AFT’s control for the County Board of Education, which until this election, consisted of five candidates backed by the AFT. Paulette Donnellon and Mark Powell, who were both backed by the charter schools group, won their elections outright in the June primary, and will be sworn into office in January.

Richard Garcia, director of elections communications for CCSA’s political arm, said charter school advocates were motivated, in part, by a series of charter school denials ruled on by the County Board of Education.

Before a charter school can open, its petition must be approved by the board of education in the district in which it wants to open. If local school districts deny a charter petition, charter schools can appeal to the County Board of Education.

In recent years, the County Board of Education has sided mostly with school districts on charter reviews. The board denied six of the seven charters it reviewed since 2011, including at least one charter that was later approved by the State Board of Education.

With two new CCSA-backed candidates on the board, charters shot down by local school districts stand a better chance at earning the right to open, should they be denied by local school districts. Union-backed board members still hold onto a 3-2 majority, however.

Charter schools are an issue San Diego Unified board members will also grapple with.

Roughly 20 percent of students who live within San Diego Unified’s boundaries currently attend charter schools, numbers that have climbed steadily in recent years.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate autonomously, are often accused of siphoning students and resources from traditional district schools. Perhaps nowhere is this more pressing a concern than the Lincoln Cluster in southeastern San Diego, which Whitehurst-Payne now represents. There, 70 percent of families leave their neighborhood schools by the time they get to high schools.

But advocates see charter schools as a lifeline for students who aren’t lucky enough to live near high-performing schools. Lincoln High, the neighborhood high school, has been rebranded and restructured multiple times in recent years, but remains one of the district’s lowest-performing high schools.

A large percentage of students who opt out of traditional district schools aren’t leaving the neighborhood. Rather, they’re opting for nearby charter schools like O’Farrell and Gompers.

Whereas Collins said during her campaign that the district should be looking to see where charter school are succeeding, Whitehurst-Payne expressed little support for charter schools.

Among other issues facing Whitehurst-Payne, she’ll be asked to lead Lincoln High School out of a nine-year tailspin. Whitehurst-Payne didn’t make Lincoln High a focal point of her campaign, choosing instead to focus on Crawford High and the needs of newly arrived immigrants.

Whitehurst-Payne has served as an interim trustee since February, when Foster pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned. School board members Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans cast their support behind Whitehurst-Payne since she announced her candidacy. Both were re-elected Tuesday.

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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