Public School Races : Proposition J, School Board Seats

by on October 20, 2010 · 3 comments

in Culture, Economy, Education, Election, Organizing, San Diego, The Chronicles of Edumacation

San Diego School Board HQ

San Diego Unified School District Headquarters on Normal Street.

OB RAG Local Elections Coverage – Part 3

I mailed in my ballot yesterday. As part of my research in this series (we’ll publish a summary next week) on the election, I’ve been paying close attention to all the issues and advertising. I’ve also—full disclosure—been working with a group (California Alliance) that focuses on increasing voter turnout amongst infrequent voters in economically challenged communities in San Diego. In past elections the work in these communities has focused on simply increasing participation. It’s worked. Voter participation in precincts we covered increased by 50% for the June primary. That’s enough votes—although we have no idea how people actually voted and did not take a stand on this race—to have made the difference in throwing Ron Roberts run for re-election into the run off that he’s currently facing.

This time around we’re taking a stand on some issues as part of our voter engagement program. It is one thing to talk about getting people to vote, and it’s another altogether to actually get them to vote for or against a specific ballot measure (the group doesn’t take a stand on candidates). The work is harder this time. Part of the process involves going door-to-door and speaking with people that the registrar of voters list tells us don’t regularly vote. These are people that are traditionally ignored by political campaigns; their communities are often last on the list for infrastructure improvements and first on the list for cuts to programs and services that benefit the people who live there.

In talking with these voters, the platitudes and promises put forth on TV ads won’t cut it. You’ve got to speak from the heart if you want to avoid having the door slammed in your face. They know that politicians pontificating about jobs don’t include their neighborhoods in their plans.

Talking passionately about education is one thing that does engage these voters. It is the one aspect of government that actually offers any hope for the future. In recent years it has become fashionable in some circles to say that public education is failing; to write the most basic of all democratic institutions off as another Big Government boondoggle. The fact is, though, that by and large public education has been and is working. Could it be better? Hell, yes! When it fails, and it must fail on occasion because, after all, it is an institution build on human relationships, it’s a terrible thing and it needs to be fixed.

schools effectiveschoolsHowever, the attacks on the institution of public education rarely have fixing these flaws at their core. They are about political power. Americans are being cynically manipulated by an ongoing campaign whose ultimate aim is to disparage government in all its forms (and there is much to disparage) so that they’ll buy into a set of “reforms” that only benefit the plutocracy that’s sponsoring them. This is about the rich getting richer. And they’re getting away with it, chipping away at all the institutions of democracy with big sacks of cash and a tidal wave of public relations ploys designed to get people to vote against their self interests. This is the big picture.

Nothing illustrates this better than the apparent disparities in the latest Gallop poll between what people think about the institution and how they perceive their own children’s schools, quoted by educator Diane Ravitch in a recent New York Review of Books article:

“Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it. The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.”

San Diego’s School Board Races

I remember attending my first San Diego School Board meeting as a parent, concerned about the impact of potential cuts on my kid’s school. I was impressed with the process. Any human with concerns about the local schools could get up and speak their piece. Maybe it was because there were lots of other parents there, along with reporters and district staff, but it seemed to me that the board actually listened, even when the dialogue veered off into areas that seemed unrealistic. It seemed as though they actually cared, even when people disagreed with them. It seemed like a good model of representative democracy in action.

I’ve gone on to have lots dealings with San Diego Unified, both as a writer and a parent. Not all of my interactions have been positive and there have been plenty of opportunities for me to see the ‘behind the scenes’ machinations that shed light on the hard ball politics that play out on major decisions. I’ve seen Board members obstruct, delay and derail agenda items for the pettiest of reasons. It can get ugly at times. The portrayal of the Board by some news media as being rigid ideologically is far from true. Despite this, my first impression remains—this is a group of people and a process worthy of praise in an era filled with dissatisfaction about governance.

School Board members face a two tiered electoral process, with any candidate not getting more than 50% of the votes in the primary election facing a run-off with their closest contender in the general election. While candidates run within their districts for the primary, they are voted on City-wide in the general election. The November 2nd ballot includes races for two of the five seats on the board.

de Beck

John de Beck

Incumbent John DeBeck is the only Board member since the Rev George W Smith, (Nov 1963 to Nov 1979) who has served more than three terms. Now Rev. Smith was quoted in the Voice of San Diego as saying, “All I know is he’s been there too long.”

Mr. DeBeck certainly has a history of being the School Board’s gadfly, and at times it seems as though he’s been contrary for the sake of being contrary. Nobody questions his dedication to the process, though, and his willingness to talk with anxious parents has earned him praise in many quarters. I have issues with his relationship with the editorial board of the Union-Tribune, which uses every opportunity to disparage the local school district. Some of the U-T editorials seem like they’ve been quoting DeBeck, which is not surprising given that it’s well known that he goes running to editorialist Chris Reed when the going gets tough behind the scenes at the School Board. His willingness to consort with an institution hell-bent on eradicating any liberal elements in local government makes the case for me that John DeBeck has become an impediment to a functioning board.

The problem here is that he is being opposed by a R-R-R-R (you can do it, Doug) R-R-R Republican. ...I had a Republican once, but the wheels fell off, so they’re unsafe at any speed… Did you hear about the new Republican dictionary? It defines class warfare as any attempt to raise the minimum wage… …Under ‘China’ it says: See WalMart….. There ARE good Republicans, right? Wasn’t Dwight Eisenhower a Republican? He seemed like a nice guy…


Scott Barnett

Now that I’ve got all my jokes and political instincts under control, I can tell you that I actually met Scott Barnet, John DeBeck’s opponent for this school board seat and came away impressed. He didn’t bite. Seemed like a nice guy, even if he did subsequently flip flop on Proposition J. He convinced me that he really believes in the promise of public education.

Whoever you vote for in this race, we’ll end up with a school board member that can be counted on to question the majority consensus in that body. So it’s a toss up. I flipped a coin and Barnet won. Went for best three out of five and Barnet still won. Knowing that (editor) Frank Gormlie’s vote would cancel mine, I closed my eyes and filled in the circle on the ballot. I haven’t been struck by lightening yet, although it is storming outside and the day isn’t over yet….

The other race for School Board is should be a no-brainer. Middle school math teacher Kevin Beiser is facing businessman Stephen Rosen. Beiser was “teacher of the year” and has secured a series of endorsements from the liberal side of the aisle. Rosen made the news recently when he ‘came out’ as a Republican, having previously portrayed himself as a ‘conservative Democrat’.


Kevin Beiser

Beiser talks about working with teachers and students to better education. Rosen tells us how angry he is with the School District. I’m thinking that it’s a bad idea to elect anybody who’s angry these days.

However, along comes Katherine Nakamura, the incumbent for that seat who admittedly didn’t take her campaign very seriously last spring and was shocked when she placed third in the primary. She decided to get serious for the general election and announced a write-in campaign, which is technically illegal these days. Superior Court Judge David Oberholtzer agreed with Nakamura’s claim that the City’s ban on write-ins candidacies was unconstitutional. He said people could write her in, but couldn’t rule on whether these votes could actually elect the incumbent.


Katherine Nakamura

In the meantime, Nakamura has been leading a very public and spirited effort to persuade voters to support Proposition J, the parcel tax measure that could buy the school district enough breathing space to weather the next couple of years of Sacramento budget-o-mania. Her response to critics of the proposal is a classic: “If they’re so damned good at math, maybe they should tell us how this district can go without a half billion dollars and not affect children.”

I ended up voting for Beiser, but it could have gone either way.


election schools prop JProposition J

Suffice it to say I’m in favor. We’ve been covering this issue for months here at the OB Rag. If you need info visit this story. Remember that it takes two thirds of the electorate to pass this kind of initiative. The people who hate the school district are going to vote against it anyway. There’s very little question about it getting a majority of the public vote; the issue is whether or not a supermajority can be attained. Your vote could make a real difference on this issue.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Frank Gormlie October 20, 2010 at 10:05 am

Doug – ouch! those jokes – The trouble with Scott Barnett is that he comes out of the San Diego Taxpayers’ Assoc which pushed the conservative GOP agenda for years: social service cut-backs, privatization of government services … perhaps he has reformed ? And BTW, I’m not pushing for de Beck, mi amigo.


avatar J. Browne October 20, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Too bad you didn’t meet Steve, he would have changed your mind (he did mine). The day I met him he had budget book in hand, and a smile on his face. He is not angry, but frustrated with a system that caters to adults (don’t you dare say it’s not true) and won’t hesitate to cut school days from kids who can’t afford to miss one day.

Instead you voted for a guy who has littered our communities with horrible signs and makes claims of experience he refuses to back up with proof.


avatar S. Finegan October 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Steve Rosen, angry? I’ve had several conversations with him this fall about education, student needs, and budget priorities. I’ve never met a businessman, with a grasp of the financial and administrative issues AND interests of teachers and students tha equal to his. Certainly not from a Republican…..

He’s enthusiastic, motivated, and deeply committed to education; if that’s what “angry” means, then most of us are. He’s done his homework and knows a lot more about District policy, priorities and struggles than most folks do – and he isn’t afraid to talk about the fact that the decisions that need to be made in coming years are going to be tough and will require steady leadership. If that’s “angry”, then I suppose all people who are committed to public service are. In this case, his idea of leadership involves partnerships between schools and the community, using every party’s strengths to forge solutions that make a difference. If that’s an angry idea, we need more of them.

As for Kevin Beiser………I am a teacher, and here’s what I know: we do not need a teacher on the school board, especially someone who struggles to make himself understood. We need people with business experience, who have experience making priorities and long-term plans, who can make tough decisions after hearing from all interested parties. We teachers have a voice, and a very strong one. There’s no danger that we won’t be heard or counted, but unless we elect people with the right expertise, we will continue to have a district that can’t manage a budget.


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