A meeting of the San Diego Unified school board / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

In 1988, voters in San Diego approved a change to the city charter that required all City Council members to be elected from within their home districts during the primary, rather than compete citywide. It was not a partisan issue. It was not an equity issue. It was a simple acknowledgement of one of the fundamental principles of American democracy: The right of communities to choose their own representatives.

That’s why it is so confusing that the City Council has refused to place a similar charter change on the ballot allowing for San Diego Unified School District board members to be elected the same way. It has been called a partisan issue. It has been called a “solution in search of a problem.” Apparently, a system that routinely disenfranchises voters, preventing them from electing representatives who best serve their interests — a system that violates fundamental democratic principles — is not seen by City Council members as “a problem.” I think it is.

Rather than fight a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, San Marcos is moving to district elections. In fact, I don’t know of any city that has prevailed against such a lawsuit. It’s not just common sense that says voters should be able to choose their own representatives; it’s routinely upheld by the courts, which have been requiring district elections in jurisdiction after jurisdiction.

Imagine if this same system applied to Congress. Imagine if candidates had to run statewide in a runoff. So, in that scenario, San Diego voters would vote for the person they think would best represent their community in the primary — and then the entire state of California would vote for who eventually represented that district. Voters in San Francisco or Eureka or Bakersfield or Los Angeles would be voting on which members of Congress were right for San Diego.

Sounds absurd, right? But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we elect SDUSD board members — letting voters who live far away from any given community choose who will represent a community that isn’t theirs. Even if that system produces a result you like, that doesn’t make it right. The ends do not justify the means.

A recent Union-Tribune column lamented that so few incumbents face meaningful opposition in their re-elections. At least when it comes to the school board, it’s easy to see why — the system is set up to protect incumbents. Someone with significant grassroots support who might be able to prevail in their home community still finds it prohibitively expensive to take on an incumbent in a citywide election. No wonder the incumbents protect the current system.

The San Diego County Grand Jury has recognized all this. These are people selected by Superior Court judges — hardly a partisan bunch. They called for in-district elections, and they called for term limits. Simple. Yet, the City Council and the school board still wouldn’t act on it.

Instead, because they couldn’t simply ignore the Grand Jury, the school board set up a series of town halls to advise them on what the community wants. However, they didn’t simply ask the community’s opinion on the issues raised by the Grand Jury. They added issues that seem to serve no other purpose than to confuse people and muddy the waters, like asking whether 16-year-olds or undocumented immigrants should be allowed to vote. These are distractions, plain and simple, meant to redirect our attention.

The first of five town halls is this Wednesday. I wish I could say I was confident that officials will produce meaningful results, but I fear that their ploy will work. I fear that the results will be vague and contradictory enough that the people holding on to power will have the excuse they need to maintain the status quo or, perhaps, to suggest a convoluted ballot measure with so many competing issues that people vote it down, which maintains the status quo — i.e., it maintains their hold on power.

Residents shouldn’t let them get away with it. This is a simple issue. Voters should have the right to choose their own representatives. SDUSD board members should be subject to term limits, just like every other state and local elected official in San Diego County. San Diego voters should get to vote on those two issues, and those two issues alone. Anything else is a vote for the status quo.

Bret Caslavka is director of Youth to the Core, a nonprofit bringing standardized physical education programs into schools, and president of Community Voices for Education, a group of parents and community members seeking reform. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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