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A citywide ballot measure that would reshape the way school board elections are held in San Diego appears poised to pass. The change could diminish the role special interests, particularly the teachers union, play in those contests.
Measure C’s passage will mean that in the future, San Diego Unified school board candidates run in sub-district elections – which only cover a small geographic chunk of the city – rather than citywide elections, as they do now. Citywide elections cost more money to run and, opponents say, can disenfranchise communities of color.
Since citywide elections cost more money to run, they have historically favored candidates supported by the local teachers union, which has access to large sums of cash and people who can knock on doors.
In fact, all three union-backed candidates appeared to win Tuesday night – in what will likely be the last citywide general election for school board candidates. The teachers’ union spent roughly $100,000 on each of its preferred candidates this year.
“Running citywide, you gotta reach more voters, send more mail, knock on more doors and that gives the advantage to the candidate who can generate the most money – and the most vote canvassers. And that’s where unions are often successful,” said Thad Kousser, chair of UC San Diego’s political science department.
Kisha Borden, president of the local union, expressed concern that Measure C had passed.
“While we did not take a position on Measure C, we are concerned about it diluting the voice of parents who live south of 8 but have students who attend schools in the northern part of the district,” she wrote in an email. “It’s unfortunate that people are more concerned about if educators have a voice in the leadership of our school district than if parents have a full say in who represents the schools their students attend.”
Borden and others have argued it’s important to have citywide elections for school board members because often students attend schools outside the sub-district in which they live. They’re arguing, in essence, that board members represent students who live outside their particular sub-district.
A large coalition of San Diegans has sought to change the way school board elections work for the past several years. The coalition came together because in various areas of the city felt they were robbed in past elections.
In 2008, for instance, Mitz Lee defeated John Lee Evans during the primary election. (The way elections have worked up until now is that candidates run in their sub-district during the primary, but then in a citywide election during the general election in November.) Then in November, Evans won in the citywide election – but not in the sub-district, Lee has said.
In other words, the voters of the sub-district favored Lee, but the citywide results outweighed the will of the local voters, said Lee. (Evans says he is not sure whether Lee actually won the sub-district in the 2008 general election. He says it’s possible he actually won the vote count in the sub-district.)
A similar situation played out in 2016 in sub-district E. In that case, however the union-backed candidate appears to have narrowly edged out her opponent in the sub-district in the general election.
Supporters of Measure C have argued the system makes it impossible for a non-union-backed candidate to compete.
“It’s very likely to lead to less costly elections,” said Kousser. “But I don’t think it puts the teachers on sidelines.”
All of the union-backed candidates appeared to win by safe margins Tuesday.
Incumbent and board vice president Richard Barrera appeared to defeat Camille Harris.
Incumbent Sharon Whitehurst-Payne appeared to defeat Lawana Richmond. The margin was slightly closer than in other races, with Whitehurst-Payne holding nearly 57 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning.
In the only open seat, Sabrina Bazzo, the union-backed candidate, appeared to easily beat Crystal Trull.
Measure D, another citywide ballot measure related to school board members, also appeared to pass Tuesday night. Measure D gives board members the ability to set in motion a process to remove a fellow board member from office. If four of five board members vote to remove their colleague, the decision would then be sent to voters.
The measure came about after four board members, as well as many prominent groups, called on Trustee Kevin Beiser to resign last year. Four men reported that Beiser sexually harassed or assaulted them, but Beiser refused to resign. He still sits on the board.