When the City Council’s rules committee voted last week to advance a proposal to change how San Diego Unified school board elections are conducted, Councilmen Chris Cate and Mark Kersey were happy – but also bewildered.
The two have long supported moving the school board to district-only elections, but as recently as two years ago, Democrats on the Council shot down an opportunity to push the change. Now, with the support of some of the same Democrats who blocked the plan in 2017, a 2020 ballot measure is moving forward.
“I am very, very pleased to see the evolution of some on this issue,” Cate said.
Indeed, local Democrats have dramatically changed their thinking on the issue of whether the school board should be forced to conduct elections in much the same way other races are carried out.
Right now, school board members advance through a primary in a specific subdistrict, and then face off in the general election among all voters in the district – which covers almost the entire city of San Diego. Being forced to run districtwide is expensive, and as a result, candidates without significant financial support – including from the teachers union – are weeded out.
The district is being sued over the current system by a group that argues the process violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting minority communities’ votes. Legal threats like that have forced nearly all local cities to switch to district elections. But San Diego Unified held out.
Two years ago, the district created a working group that studied the question, along with term limits. The group found significant public support for changing to subdistrict-only elections. But board members argued that it wouldn’t actually help people of color get elected and that, because so many students choose to go to school outside their neighborhoods, their representatives should have an interest in the entire district.
They argued against the change at City Council. Council members, by a one-vote margin, agreed to put term limits on the ballot but not the subdistrict election change.
Among those who appear to have evolved on instituting the change is Council President Georgette Gómez.
Gómez told VOSD in a podcast interview last week that the last time the Council considered the issue, “I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to school board members for them to actually do it themselves. They didn’t. And so this time around, I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to do it.’”
She wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable at the time intervening in the district’s process.
When the Council’s rules committee discussed subdistrict-only elections in a July 2017 meeting, Councilwoman Barbara Bry said she didn’t think it was appropriate for the Council to meddle in “a matter that is quite frankly not our business.”
Councilman Chris Ward said in 2017 that “we got out of the business of governing school boards 50 years ago,” when he voted against putting a reform measure on the ballot.
Gómez, Bry and Ward, however, all voted last week to advance the ballot measure that would let voters consider the change to the full City Council. None mentioned any hesitation about the Council’s role in making such a change.
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery was not on the City Council when it considered school board election reform in 2017, but she won office the following year after making it clear she supports changing the process.
“The only reason I have a chance in this race is because we are running only in the district,” she said on the campaign trail. “If I had to run citywide, it just wouldn’t be possible. Given that, how can I possibly oppose making that change on the school board without being a hypocrite?”
Support for the change goes beyond just Democrats on the Council.
Last week, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, perhaps the region’s strongest labor union supporter, wrote on Twitter: “I’m sorry, I just don’t see how we as Democrats can be against district-only school board elections in San Diego. It’s time. It’s actually past time.”
Gonzalez’s colleague in the Assembly, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, also a Democrat, wrote a bill earlier this year that would make the change at the state level – but put the measure on a two-year track in order to give the City Council time to sort it out first.
It’s a remarkable about-face in a few years.
Back in 2016, when local Democrats successfully passed a ballot measure requiring all citywide elections to be decided in November, rather than allowing candidates to win outright during the primary, they said doing so was important because it would make those elections consistent with the way other elections are carried out, like those for Congress and statewide offices.
When Voice of San Diego held a debate on the measure, campaign consultant Ryan Clumpner challenged then-labor leader Mickey Kasparian on that argument. If consistency was the goal, Clumpner asked, then would Democrats similarly commit to changing school board elections so that they too adhered to a consistent process?
Kasparian refused to answer.
“I’m not here to talk about school districts. I’m here to talk about Measure K and Measure L,” Kasparian said. “The next thing you’re going to be talking about with me is the war in Iraq. I don’t want to get into all that.”