It’s no secret the pandemic ushered in a toxic era of school board politics. But while in many districts, trustees’ fiery personas or diverging pandemic-era politics have created tension and disarray, San Diego Unified has displayed a striking degree of ideological unity.
The district’s school board has unanimously approved every single item that has come before it in 2023. A share of those votes was on uncontroversial items. But even on issues that could have inspired controversy – like whether to pay teachers more while simultaneously projecting big budget deficits – the board stayed together.
Current board members say the unanimity is just a symptom of voters electing a board with shared values. It allows the district to run more efficiently, they say. But detractors say the unanimity stifles robust debate and is artificially produced by the teachers union’s outsized influence in elections.
Longtime board member Richard Barrera said he understands why the board’s unanimity might concern some people, but it’s not something he worries about. The people who do fret about unanimity are just people who wish different people were on the board, he said.
Barrera attributes the unanimity to two things: “A board which shares core values and a board that has confidence in its superintendent.”
The board asks the right questions, he said, and knows Superintendent Lamont Jackson is focused on improving student outcomes – many of the board’s votes are on Jackson’s recommendations. Big debates on the dais, Barrera said, would hinder the district’s ability to operate efficiently and effectively implement programs.
“I know there are people who disagree with our decisions … But if you disagree with our decisions, the issue is not that the board members are voting unanimously, your problem is you don’t share the values of board members,” Barrera said.
Board member Cody Petterson said the unanimity is just a function of who voters picked. Progressive thinking won at the ballot box, he said, so it’s no surprise it wins board votes.
Petterson said it helps that senior staff tend to work to iron out any concerns individual board members may have before items are brought for a vote. But, he said, they’re careful not to violate the restrictions California’s Brown Act places on how members of public boards can meet.
And while Barrera said the board asks the right questions, the possibility that they didn’t sometimes keeps Petterson up at night. “I do have my moments where I wake up in the night and I’m like, ‘Did I ask all the questions I should ask? Did I push back as hard as I should push back on that issue?’” Petterson said.
But he thinks that nagging feeling is all part of being a responsible board member. Knowing everything about a district with 100,000 students and a budget of around $2 billion is a nearly impossible task, Petterson said.
Ultimately, he said, you have to trust the superintendent.
Sometimes They’ve Disagreed
The board’s unanimity hasn’t come out of thin air. The last big year for dissent was 2019, when seven votes were not unanimous. But based on minutes of school board meetings, only four votes since 2020 have not been approved unanimously, and only one has failed.
The most divisive issue in 2022 was whether to allow student board members full voting powers. Currently, student trustees’ votes are recorded in the board’s minutes but don’t count toward the final vote totals.
Student trustee Zach Patterson brought forth a resolution to support state legislation that would have amended California’s Education Code. The bill also would have given districts the option to award student trustees a stipend. The board rejected the resolution 3 to 2. The bill ultimately died in the state’s assembly education committee.
The only vote since then that hasn’t been unanimous was a December 2022 vote on who would serve as the board’s new vice president. In that vote, Whitehurst-Payne was the only board member to vote for Petterson rather than Shana Hazan.
Whitehurst-Payne also cast a dissenting vote in a July 2019 motion to extend former Superintendent Cindy Marten’s contract. It was a rare rebuke by a trustee of Marten, who went on to become the nation’s Deputy Secretary of Education. During the meeting, Whitehurst-Payne said she’d decided not to support the contract extension because the superintendent still hadn’t done enough to help struggling Lincoln High.
The current board’s ideological unity was exactly what Becca Williams, who unsuccessfully ran against Petterson in 2022, hoped to challenge. Williams said she hadn’t run to provoke other board members and be a sole dissenting voice, but to challenge it to more deeply examine options outside of what she views as its ideological bent.
“A 5 – 0 vote, it signals unity, and unity is a good thing, except for when it’s what we’re seeing here, which isn’t a consensus reached by exploring all the different factors that go into making a decision,” Williams said. She views the impending budget deficit, and the district’s approval of teacher raises, as an example.
To Williams, the argument that voters elected the board they wanted doesn’t hold much water. She believes the board’s chief allegiance is to organized labor – specifically the teachers union. If you don’t share that allegiance, she said, it’s nearly impossible to get elected.
“Any individual who would want to participate is at a disadvantage because you’re decades behind in terms of developing the infrastructure needed to run a campaign,” Williams said.
And she’s not entirely wrong. Despite out-fundraising Petterson for much of the election, the teachers union flooded the field in the final months.
Like Petterson and Barrera, Hazan agreed that there‘s a shared vision on the board. But she said while she may vote yes on an item, “It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It means it’s directionally correct.”
The unanimity, she said, also doesn’t stop probing discussions. One such example is the recent passage of the district’s LCAP, a document that lays out a district’s goals for students and how it plans to achieve them. While Hazan voted yes during the meeting, she also voiced that she’d like improvements to language about reading curriculum and that there’s a need for more measurable data to inform future work.
“I don’t think we should mistake consensus for individual board members not identifying things that need to change and need to shift,” Hazan said. “It means we believe this is highest and best use of our dollars.”