Assemblywoman Shirley Weber / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

If the San Diego City Council doesn’t pursue a change to how San Diego Unified board members are elected, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is prepared to do so at the state level.

Weber introduced a bill in late February that would require candidates for the Board of Education to run solely within their subdistricts – a change long sought by many advocates, and recommended by a San Diego County Grand Jury. Right now, candidates run within a subdistrict in the primary, then run districtwide during the general election.

A spokesman for Weber said Thursday they’ve put the bill on a two-year track in order to give the City Council time to move the reform forward itself.

A lawsuit making its way through the court system is also seeking to force the city to move to district-only elections for the school board. It argues that the current system violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting minority communities’ votes.

Though the San Diego City Council has no oversight over how schools are run, it does have a role in the school board election process because changes to that process require an amendment to the City Charter. Only the City Council or a citizen’s initiative can put changes to the charter on the ballot for voters to consider.

In 2017, the San Diego County Grand Jury determined that requiring candidates to participate in a citywide election, rather than a district-only election, forces them to rely on support and financial backing from special interest groups.

The current election process, the Grand Jury found, “does not always result in board members who reflect the diversity of the district’s population.”

Weber, herself a former San Diego Unified trustee, is especially aware of those issues.

In 2016, one of her top staffers at the time, LaShae Collins, ran for the San Diego Unified board. In the primary, Collins won overwhelmingly – she beat Sharon Whitehurst-Payne by 20 points. But in the citywide general election, where Whitehurst-Payne benefited from union support, Collins lost by 9 points.

“I think it’s clear that most people want these things solved at the local level. But as the Grand Jury pointed out, it hasn’t been solved. It’s still a problem,” said Joe Kocurek, Weber’s spokesman, of the decision to pursue a change at the state level.

The current process has resulted in many trustees strolling onto the school board unopposed or without major challengers. Trustee Mike McQuary won his first term unopposed. When he ran for re-election in 2018, he had a challenger – Marcia Nordstrom – but when he was asked about her by the Union-Tribune editorial board, he couldn’t even remember her name, which is not exactly the sign of a robust contest. Trustee Richard Barrera, who’s dismissed the move to district-only elections as a Republican ploy, has run unopposed in three straight elections.

Over the last two years, the City Council has explored reforms to the San Diego Unified board election process but always stopped short of moving to district-only elections, even as other school boards and city councils across the county have made similar changes.

After collecting feedback from residents last year, San Diego Unified moved forward some election reforms, including limiting trustees to three four-year terms. Voters approved that change in November 2018. But the district – and the Council – decided not to ask voters whether to move to district-only elections.

City Councilman Chris Cate supports the move to district-only elections but seemed wary that the Council will be the body to do it.

He said deliberations with San Diego Unified about further reforms are basically at a standstill.

“I’m appreciative that Dr. Weber has looked into this and has taken it a step further to make sure this becomes a reality,” Cate said. “I’m in support of term limits and sub-district only elections. Because they fall under the purview of the city, school districts should fall under and have the same purview as city officials – no more and no less.”

Though Weber’s office said the assemblywoman hopes the City Council moves forward on the reform, her bill argues that “the dilution of votes of members of a protected class in elections for the Board of Education of the San Diego Unified School District is a matter of statewide concern.”

Kayla Jimenez contributed to this report.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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