Jan. 5 2011 10:54 AM

Proposed school board reform puts politics where it doesn't belong

Aside from how San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council choose to deal with a crushing budget shortage, perhaps the most important local storyline of 2011 will be a debate over how San Diego’s schools are governed. Using paid gatherers, a group calling itself San Diegans 4 Great Schools (SD4GS) is collecting signatures on a petition that would propel to the ballot an initiative that proposes fundamental governance changes.

SD4GS, led by prominent business leaders, believes city schools are largely failing—a point we won’t argue here—and it blames San Diego Unified School District’s five-member Board of Education for the failures. It’s safe to say the group is displeased with voters’ preference during the past decade for candidates backed by the teachers union. SD4GS wants to enlarge the school board, institute term limits for members and switch to a system in which only voters in subdistricts select their representatives.

We have no problem expanding the school board; a case can be easily made that the district’s population is far too big for only five members. And we don’t object to moving to subdistrict-only elections. However, we remain opposed to term limits in general; voters should not be barred from voting for someone they believe is an effective public servant, and term limits hasn’t proven to be the answer where it’s been tried.

But we’re going to focus this editorial on the provision in the proposal that would establish the method for choosing four additional board members. Rather than being elected by voters, these four members would be appointed by a nine-member committee composed of the chiefs of USCD, San Diego State University, the University of San Diego and the San Diego Community College District, plus the chairpersons of four of the school district’s advisory committees and one representative from either the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce or the San Diego Economic Development Corporation.

SD4GS believes a board composed of five elected members and four appointed members would be less political than the current configuration of five elected members. We don’t see it that way. Interests wanting to influence the manner in which education is delivered will find a path. For example, the presidents of UCSD and SDSU tend to hobnob with San Diego’s business leaders, and the representative from the chamber or the EDC is certainly an appointee favorable to the business community, which is just as much a political interest as the teachers union.

But the worst part of this proposal is the involvement of the four advisory committees, which help decide policies aimed at kids who are academically gifted, low-income, English learners or in need of special education. Far from lessening the impact of politics on education, this provision would inject another layer of politics in places where it’s not wanted. The seats at the head of these committees—which are largely made up of parents—would become highly powerful and coveted spots. While we doubt that the rank-and-file members of these committees would be chosen with politics in mind (with the possible exception of the special-education committee, which is chosen by the school board—how’s that for a circular system?), the chairs would be selected politically. That’s a problem for us; these leaders should be chosen for how well they’ll serve distinct groups of children, not for who they’ll appoint to the Board of Education.

We’re not running around with our hair ablaze over notions of business interests trying to take control of San Diego schools; good ideas are good ideas no matter who pitches them. Again, if you want to add more elected members to the board and make them accountable to smaller swaths of voters, that’s fine. But several of the elements of SD4GS’s initiative are nonstarters, and so we urge you not to sign the petition if asked.

SD4GS is oversimplifying the problem. The teachers union at times puts its members’ interest over the interests of students, as was the case when the union opted to shorten the teaching year in lieu of a pay cut. But blaming the union entirely for the state of local schools is nutty. Start talking about deeper issues and back policies that strengthen the families and communities that shape children and send them to school, and we’ll be rapt with attention.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.