[San Diego County] San Diego City Council Can’t Wash Its Hands of School Board Election Reform

As a recent grand jury report made clear, citywide school district elections are unfair and expensive and don't always reflect the diversity within the student population.

A recent San Diego County Grand Jury report shed much-needed light on the broken and outdated method of electing pre-K-12 school board members in the city of San Diego. During a primary election, a candidate competes at what’s known as the sub-district level and the winner reflects the will of the people. But the winner may go on to lose to the runner-up in a general, citywide competition.

That’s not only unfair, it’s expensive and it disadvantages candidates without endorsements or financial backing. As the grand jury’s report noted, citywide school district elections place “an enormous financial burden” on the candidate, and the outcomes don’t always reflect the diversity within the San Diego Unified student population.

Allowing board members to serve without any limitations on terms, the report also noted, is ineffective. When term limits are in place, an elected official is much more likely to focus on what’s best for the people who elected them, rather than focus on the politics of being re-elected. While I believe our school board members care deeply about our students, the current election system also forces them to split their time every couple years between the governance of the school district and running again for office.

Change, in this case, can only be implemented by the San Diego City Council because the school district’s election rules are controlled by the city charter. It’s my sincere hope that the City Council — including my fellow Democrats — will reconsider its recent decision and put proposals on the 2018 ballot that institute term limits and district-only elections, and place weight on the recommendations coming from the community as heavily as those coming from the school board members.

I imagine that smart and sensible reforms like these already enjoy wide-spread support throughout our community, particularly as they mirror the ways in which we currently vote for city council members and county supervisors.

I’ve worked in education for more than nine years and I grew up in San Diego, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher on the other side of the country that my eyes were opened to how crucial a strong pre-K-12 school system is to the future of a community. The United States has fallen among reputable publications, which doesn’t surprise me given that our literacy and math rates have dramatically descended — from first in the world to below the top 20 or 30, depending on the metric.

The success of our schools is inextricably linked to the future shape of our economy, and anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the state of public education in our city and across our country will know that our system is in need of some repair.

It’s disconcerting that our council members appear to want nothing to do with this responsibility, turning to political party lines for guidance in how to move forward, rather than to educators and the community. They spend a lot of time talking about the economy, the homelessness and public health crises, and offer ideas for tackling the housing shortage. But they say little about a strong pre-K-12 strategy.

In 2015, the San Diego County Office of Education’s Achievement Gap Task Force found that only 26 percent of our students are projected to complete a post-secondary education opportunity. I’m not an economist, but I don’t see how our economy can outpace others if our leaders don’t invest the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and innovators.

I’m not advocating for elected city leaders taking over schools. I’ve never seen an effective example of that system. But ensuring that our region has quality schools for all students needs to be atop the priority list for our mayor, council members, and other elected representatives.

This can be accomplished by having educators on their staffs, by visiting schools, by asking tough questions of school board officials and learning from parents and students, and by working more closely in developing a regional strategy alongside our educational leaders. They should be informed, demonstrate a desire to hold themselves and elected school board officials accountable for the success of our schools, and invest more funding into quality pre-K-12 education programs.

Rather than run away from problems, they should do everything they can to be informed by teachers, students, parents, community members and experts, with the goal of improving the school system overall while keeping an eye towards the future of our regional economy.

That begins by re-thinking the way we elect our representation.

January 25, 2018

Voice of San Diego

Opinion by Andrew Simmerman

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