San Diego Unified Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Interstate 8 often serves as the political demarcation line for debates about resources in San Diego Unified School District. Do schools in poorer neighborhoods south of 8 get an equitable share of money and talent? Do the parents north of 8, in richer communities, have a louder voice in district affairs?

These questions often pit the communities against one another. But one debate over the last decade has molded together a diverse coalition of San Diegans, from University City in the north to Lincoln Park in the south: district-only versus citywide elections. Such a seemingly sleepy question of electoral process has galvanized so many, because they believe the current citywide model allows big money to drown out the true will of voters in local communities north and south of 8.

Now city leaders and community members are tangled up in lawsuits and potential ballot measures that could finally settle the debate in November or even sooner – unless they don’t.

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Here’s how elections work now: Candidates in five sub-districts face off in internal sub-district contests during the primary election. But then in November, candidates must run citywide and reach a much larger number of voters during the general election. In some cases, candidates have won big when facing just the voters in their community during the sub-district primary. But then when the general election rolls around, those same candidates have been outspent and unable to win a citywide election.

In 2008 and 2016, for instance, the preferred local candidate in districts both south and north of 8, respectively, went on to lose in the general citywide election. Both losing candidates were opposed by the local teacher’s union, which spent serious cash helping its preferred candidates win the citywide races. Supporters of district-only elections argue that the only way to even have a chance of winning against big money is through district-only elections.

But supporters of the current system, like current San Diego Unified board trustee Richard Barrera, say that big money can have a huge influence in citywide or district-only elections. He noted that wealthy charter school supporters often put up big money that can outpace union spending.

After the 2016 election, a San Diego County Grand Jury report urged city leaders to move to a district-only election model. But officials have been unable to agree on a solution. City Council members have indicated they will put the question to voters via a ballot measure during this year’s general election in November. Because the election process is written into the city charter, only a vote of the people can change it.

But some worry the ballot measure could be cluttered with other, more controversial issues – such as allowing 16-year olds to vote in school board elections – that would make it more difficult to pass.

“I am concerned that there are players behind the scenes pushing other ballot changes that would poison the sub-district-only election measure,” said Tamara Hurley, a community member who has been advocating for district-only elections.

Hurley and others think the ballot measure should be kept “clean.” In other words, it should only be about whether to move to district-only elections. Adding another proposal on top of it could function as a poison pill that might prevent people from supporting the measure, they reason.

Councilman Chris Cate, a Republican, echoed Hurley’s concerns: “Until we see what’s on the ballot, I absolutely am worried.”

Cate noted that several of his colleagues were previously against moving to district-only elections, but have since shifted their positions. He too worried they might try to include multiple proposals on the November ballot measure, rather than keeping it focused on district-only elections.

Other proposals that have been floated include allowing 16-year-olds and non-citizens to be able to vote in school board elections.

But Barrera said he doesn’t think those propositions will be included in any potential ballot measure.

He said one question, however, does remain open: whether to expand the number of school board seats. San Diego Unified currently has five board members who represent extremely large chunks of the city. By contrast, the City Council has nine seats, which cover smaller areas than the school board subdistricts. (City Council members are also elected in district-only elections.)

“What’s in play is whether we’re gonna have five or seven seats,” said Barrera.

Hurley said she supports increasing the number of school board seats, because she thinks it will lead to more effective representation. But she doesn’t support placing the question on the same ballot as district-only elections.

“It muddies the water,” she said. “It combines something that has a lot more support from stakeholders with something that creates concerns over cost.”

The exact ballot language is set to be considered by the City Council Rules Committee on March 11 and by the full City Council over the summer.

A lawsuit filed by a group called Parents for Quality Education contends that the current election process violates the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits citywide elections if they dilute the vote of minority communities. The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in July. At least in theory, it’s possible a judge could strike down the current system, but it’s unclear if any changes would be implemented before the November election.

The lawsuit came about after the 2016 election in District E, between LaShae Collins and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who are both black. District E is made up of mostly Latino and black voters and has historically been represented by black politicians.

Collins beat Whitehurst-Payne in the primary, earning roughly 60 percent of the vote. (Whitehurst-Payne was backed by unions and Collins was backed by many charter school supporters.) But then in the general election, Whitehurst-Payne ultimately won nearly 55 percent of the vote.

Many have argued that the election clearly showed that the will of people who live in District E was ignored. Others have pointed out that Whitehurst-Payne appears to have won the District E vote in the general election. Doing a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the vote is difficult, but Whitehurst-Payne did edge out Collins in all of the precincts within City Council District 4, which encompasses a similar part of the city to school board District E.

Whitehurst Payne won 51.05 percent of the vote to Collins’ 48.69 percent in the precincts of District 4.

Even though the lawsuit came on the heels of Collins defeat, it originated from a group that has ties to a part of the city north of 8. Parents for Quality Education was formed with the help of Mitz Lee, who lost her school board election in a district north of Interstate 8 under similar circumstances to Collins.

Lee lost to current trustee John Lee Evans in District A, which includes Clairemont and University City, but she beat him during the primary. Lee also believes she won the vote count for District A during the general election. (Evans disputes this and thinks it’s possible he won the vote count within District A during the general election.) But Lee said she could not raise enough money to compete with Evans on a citywide basis.

Lee’s own story, however, offers a counter-example. Four years earlier, she managed to win the District A race citywide – even though her opponent was backed by union money.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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