Sunday, March 27, 2011

Queer Democrats Say Don’t Sign the “Great Schools” Initiative

Plan Would Add Four Non-Elected Members to San Diego Unified’s Board


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Richard Barrera, Scott Himmelstein

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club voted overwhelmingly at their March 24 meeting to urge people not to sign an initiative offered by a group called “San Diegans 4 Great Schools” but actually sponsored and financed by two multimillionaires, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and CAC hedge fund CEO Rod Dammeyer. The club took this action after hearing a debate between Scott Himmelstein, director of the Center for Education, Policy and Law at the University of San Diego (USD) and spokesperson for the initiative; and Richard Barrera, president of the board of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), who spoke against it.

The debate revolved around the most controversial aspect of the initiative: the expansion of the SDUSD board from five to nine members. The new members wouldn’t be elected by popular vote, as the five current ones are. They would be appointed by a nine-member committee consisting of the presidents of San Diego’s three largest universities — San Diego State University (SDSU) and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), which are public institutions, and USD, which is private and owned by the Roman Catholic Church — along with the chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, the parent chairs of four district advisory committees and either the president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce or the head of the San Diego Economic Development Corporation (EDC). According to Himmelstein, six of these nine people would have to agree on the candidates for the appointed school board positions.

The initiative does several other things. Right now school board candidates run in district-only primaries but the general elections are citywide. The San Diego City Council used to be elected that way until 1987, when voters passed an initiative for district-only elections. The San Diegans 4 Great Schools initiative would make school board elections district-only as well, a change actually proposed in the 1990’s but opposed by the San Diego Democratic Club for fear that it would make it easier for the radical religious Right to run stealth candidates and take over the school board. The initiative would also limit school board members to three four-year terms and require each school in the district to come up with a plan to improve its students’ learning, as measured by test scores, and file it not only with the school board but the Mayor and City Council as well.

“Our Center for Education, Policy and Law did a seven-year study of the district from 2003 to 2009,” Himmelstein said. “Only about half of our students in elementary and middle school are reading and computing math at grade level. And if you are a student of color, low-income or a special-needs student, according to national tests 80 percent of them are not reading at grade level. Recently the tests on science came out, and according to them 29 percent of our fourth-grade students and only 20 percent of our eighth-grade students are proficient in science: dismal results by any measure.”

Himmelstein acknowledged that “the district is going through some significant financial issues right now,” but said that from 2002 to 2009 per-pupil spending went up 25 percent without any improvement in test scores. The initiative came together, he said, from a group of about 60 people who decided that the way to improve SDUSD students’ performance was to revamp the district’s governing board and make the district’s administration more stable. “Our district has had quite a turnover in superintendents and board members in the last few years,” Himmelstein explained, “and in my view it’s had some not-good effects on students, teachers, administrators and the community as well.”

Indeed, Himmelstein said his group first came together to place an ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune pleading with former superintendent Terry Grier to stay in San Diego in 2009; he quit to take a similar job in Houston and Bill Kowba, the district’s chief financial officer, took over as interim superintendent and won the permanent appointment to the job earlier this year. (In his score card of four permanent and three interim superintendents at SDUSD in the last decade, Himmelstein counted Kowba twice.) Himmelstein said his group looked at Boston, New York and Chicago as models for their reform proposals, though later in the meeting he acknowledged that the initiative had been shaped around public opinion polls in San Diego to maximize its chances of passing.

According to Himmelstein, an all-elected school board who have to run citywide campaigns allows “special interest dollars to come into play” since “it’s very expensive to run citywide. We have had a history in this city of both the downtown business community and special interests on the labor side contributing heavily to elections.” He said the appointed members would “bring some balance to our school board, some expertise, more debate and more consensus.”

Barrera said that the principal gap in Himmelstein’s presentation was he didn’t offer an explanation for how thoroughly revamping the school board will actually lead to improved student performance. “Scott cannot connect the dots, Barrera said. “He cannot say how the problems he talks about are in any way addressed by taking away the rights of hundreds of thousands of voters to determine who’s on the school board, and giving that power to a handful of people who define ‘special interests.’” Barrera acknowledged the recent history of “dissension between administrators, educators and community groups” at SDUSD but said that the current board has addressed that and also cut back spending on administration so more of the money the district does have goes to the classroom.

“In the last two years we have faced the worst financial crisis in the history of this district,” Barrera said, “and despite the fact that we’ve had a 20 percent cut in our general fund, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase in student academic achievement as measured by the same test scores Scott is citing. I’m not a big fan of test scores. I don’t regard them as the be-all and end-all of student achievement by any means. But if you go back over the last two years, you see the percentage of students scoring proficient in literacy and math go up 20 percent, and the percent showing proficiency in science go up by over a third, all while our budgets have been cut by over 20 percent.”

Barrera also said that compared to other big-city school districts, San Diego is “number one in literacy in California, and number three in math — and about to go to number one. We’ve risen to number one in science.” According to Barrera, on the national level San Diego ranked number four of 18 large urban school districts in the nationwide science tests Himmelstein was citing — and did better than Boston, Chicago and New York, the cities Himmelstein cited as models. “That’s not good enough,” Barrera conceded, “but there has been good, steady progress, and we understand clearly that it’s not the result of the superintendent and the school board. It’s the result of the work that’s going on at the schools: teachers, parents, principals, students and community members coming together and working as teams — not a top-down administration imposing its will, driving up costs and not achieving results.”

Responding to a club member’s question on who the so-called “special interests” are, Barrera said that the Great Schools initiative would actually increase, not decrease, the influence of special interests on the school district. He said having board members appointed by a committee including the presidents of UCSD and SDSU — which train most of the district’s principals and teachers, respectively — would create a conflict of interest that would get in the way of negotiating with those institutions over issues like “the way they train our teachers and their limits on admissions to local students so they can get more money from out-of-state students.”

Barrera also said that the San Diego Chamber of Commerce “includes many corporations who are vendors to the school district” and the four parent committees whose chairs would have a role in making the board appointments — dealing with academically gifted students, low-income students, English learners and special-education students — “each have a vested interest in the school board.” He suggested school board members appointed by the committee the Great Schools initiative would set up “will advocate” for the agendas of the people who appointed them. “To say this somehow takes special interests out of the choice of who’s on the school board is ridiculous,” Barrera said.

“I would totally disagree with Richard’s characterization of [the committee members] as ‘special interests,’” Himmelstein replied. “The university presidents are the prime consumers of our product, and their interest is students who compete well. The four parent leaders are concerned with their own children and other students. Let’s talk about major employers. What’s their special interest? People who can read, compute, come into their companies and be productive citizens.” He also said that, contrary to Barrera’s claim that adding four non-elected members to the school board dilutes democracy, the initiative process by which they’re putting their proposal on the ballot requires that the people vote for it in order to pass it.

Former club president Stephen Whitburn raised the concern that one of the people appointing the non-elected school board members will be the president of USD, a private university owned by the Roman Catholic Church. “One of the strongest opponents of Gay equality has been the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic doctrine,” Whitburn said, adding that as a Gay man he could not support a proposal that would give a Catholic university president a voice in choosing four members of the local school board.

“My experience with USD is it’s not run by the Catholic Church,” Himmelstein said. “It has a history as a Catholic university, but none of the decision-making has to do with the church.” Himmelstein also disputed Barrera’s claim that San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance Carroll opposed the Great Schools initiative even though she’d be one of the nine members on the appointing panel. “She can’t take a position, but she’s said she would serve,” Himmelstein said.

“I can guarantee you the Community College Board will oppose this initiative,” Barrera said. He also cited the SDUSD’s response to the Queer bullying issue as an example of why the school board should remain all-elected. “We had a series of tragedies focused on LGBT [Queer] kids this year, and a group of community leaders came to our district and asked us to do something,” he recalled. “We passed a resolution and set up a task force to develop a policy. We answered to the kids in our district, not to the Catholic Church or any other outside group. We answered to our kids because that’s what the voters elected us to do.”

Club treasurer John Gordon and former president Craig Roberts both questioned the Great Schools’ campaign’s use of paid signature gatherers to get their initiative on the ballot. Gordon accused the campaign’s signature gatherers of “using cliché marketing and other misleading words” in getting people to sign, and asked Himmelstein, “Have you personally monitored that and approved the script?”

“The signature gathering has nothing to do with USD,” Himmelstein responded. “Ninety-nine percent or greater of all initiatives get on the ballot by hiring signature-gathering firms. We do give them a script, or the contractor does.” He also insisted that San Diegans 4 Great Schools “is a separate campaign with separate offices” from the USD Center for Education, Policy and Law, which he runs as his day job.

“Paid petitioners lie about what initiatives will do,” said Roberts, who also admitted he was troubled that the proposal lumped together ideas he could support with others he opposes. “I’d support district elections and more elected school board members,” said Roberts. “I’m uncertain about term limits and I’m opposed to the appointed members. I’d like to be able to vote for the items I like and against the ones I don’t, and I want to know why I can’t do that.”

“This is the product of people who researched it and got input from the public,” Himmelstein said. “Based on our work, we felt this package has the best opportunity to be passed. When the school districts puts their own initiatives on the ballot, they do polling, too.”

Barrera said that the district elections and term limits are essentially loss leaders, put into the proposal so the sponsors can get voters to give them what they really want: the non-elected board members. “If Scott and his folks had wanted to work with us to expand the school board and have it elected by district, I would have welcomed that,” Barrera said. “What Scott and his folks want are the appointments, so they bury it in term limits, which poll well. Their campaign won’t be about appointing school board members; it will be about term limits, based on the polling.”

Veteran San Diego activist and former Congressional candidate Nancy Casady raised the possibility that the four appointed board members would work as a group and seek the support of one elected member to join their bloc, so they could have absolute control of the board. “You’re presuming that all four of the appointed board members would agree on every issue,” Himmelstein responded. “That wouldn’t be the case. People have different thoughts. A larger board would be healthier and offer better debate. It’s harder to get to five votes than three, so there will be more compromises.”

“Most of our kids live in the southern part of San Diego, in my district and Shelia Jackson’s district,” Barrera said. “Currently, those communities can elect two of the five school board members. Under this proposal, they could elect two of nine. Our students are already underrepresented, and under this plan they’d be even more underrepresented.”

Himmelstein portrayed the choice before San Diego’s voters — first over whether to sign his group’s petition and then, if it qualifies, whether to vote for it — as a black-and-white one: either accept the dysfunctional status quo or adopt his group’s plan. “If you are satisfied with the results of the current system over a long period of time, where over one-half of our kids are not proficient, you can do the same thing,” he said. “This provides an opportunity for better results. Change is never easy.”

“The biggest threat to stability in the schools right now is the state’s financial situation,” Barrera said. “If Jerry Brown’s initiative [to keep the state’s current sales taxes and vehicle license fees in place] does not make it onto the ballot or does not pass, we’re talking about devastating the school system, ending the school year at the end of March and putting students in overcrowded classrooms the rest of the year.”

The club had to go through some procedural hoops to vote on the initiative because its executive board had originally scheduled the March 24 meeting just to discuss the issue and hear from both sides, not to take a position. As a result, the club members had first to pass a two-thirds motion to suspend the rules so they could vote on it. A motion to suspend the rules so the club could endorse against the proposal failed with 15 in favor and 10 opposed — short of the two-thirds threshold — but, after former president Roberts said he would be willing to support a motion urging people not to sign it, the motion to suspend the rules for that purpose passed 22 to 2, and the final vote on urging people not to sign it was so lopsided in favor club president Doug Case didn’t bother to count it.