Residents of the Poway Unified School District elected newcomer Darshana Patel and re-elected Kimberley Beatty to the school board Tuesday. The pair rose to the top of a field of nine candidates.

Both winners were endorsed by the Poway School Employees Association, which represents non-teaching staff, and by the San Diego County Democratic Party.

Beatty — first voted into office in 2012 on a reform mandate — has been a polarizing figure on the board, helping to usher out the district superintendent John Collins late last school year after auditors found he received unauthorized pay totaling $345,000 over the years. The district fired and sued Collins in July.

Beatty’s supporters and detractors have viewed her as a political firebrand. She’s been cheered by some for challenging the status quo and pushing for transparency, and criticized by others who blamed her for the discord that upended the district in the last year.

Her biggest political foe was Poway’s teacher union, whose leadership closely aligned itself with the former superintendent during his six-year tenure. The union spent $16,580 promoting two of Beatty’s challengers this election season, including Patel.

Beatty issued the following statement after her win:

“In this election, I was able to overcome significant obstacles and organized opposition in order to retain my seat on the board of education. I am grateful for all those that supported and stood by me throughout. I was the first to be elected after the capital appreciation bond scandal broke in 2012, carrying with me a reform mandate from the community. The good governance reforms I introduced were repeatedly met with strong opposition from an established power structure reticent to change. My re-election reaffirms the community’s support for structural reform in our school district leadership. We need to make sure that all of our resources are focused on the quality education of our students.”

Patel’s election is also an important one, as much of the district’s future could depend on whether she aligns herself with Beatty and fellow reform-minded board member Charles Sellers, or board President Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and vice president T.J. Zane, who tend to favor a more even-keeled approach to district issues.

Patel’s campaign focused on collaboration and unity. At her campaign launch, she lamented the attention given to personnel troubles over the needs of students. Supporters touted her past profession as a scientist as a valuable asset for the district’s science, technology, engineering and math programs. She is currently a full-time homemaker and has three daughters ages 6 to 11 in Poway schools.

“Really, I am not beholden to anybody based on the donations they’ve given me, whether it’s the support of unions, the support of a party. This is a nonpartisan board,” Patel said in an interview. Though she’s previously worked with O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane on issues in Rancho Penasquitos, she said she’ll be an “independent board member. I am not coming in fighting with anybody. I am coming in with eyes wide open. I am a scientist. I want to see the evidence.”

“Everybody is looking to heal here. I don’t think anyone is looking to keep driving the stake between anybody.”

Patel’s appetite or stomach for change will play a big role going forward as the board chooses a new superintendent, chief business officer, considers new financial and legal consultants and potential changes to school start times and student programs.

“I’m a decisive person. When I see something that needs to be changed, I will work passionately and effectively to get that changed.” For something that warrants more study, Patel said, “I am OK looking at something in a more detailed way.”

Looking back at the board’s decisions over the past year, Patel said, “I think some of the actions were definitely necessary. I do think the actions could have been more tactful,” with less of a “slash-and-burn” approach to leadership. “I think attitude and presentation makes a very big difference in how the message is received.”

According to the latest tally reported by the Registrar of Voters, Patel received 630 votes more than Beatty.

“I am very excited that the results came in solid for the top two candidates. That helps people more forward. I really look forward to working collaboratively with the board,” said Patel. “I think what it shows more is the community is ready for positive change, for respectful dialogue. I think the community sees animosity between board members and they are tired of that.”

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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