Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom:
L to R: John Witt, Bob Cornelius, Gregg Robinson
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality endorsed two leaders from the American Federation for Teachers (AFT) for school board races at their March 22 meeting: Marne (pronounced “Marnie”) Foster for San Diego Unified School District board district E and Gregg Robinson for District One of the San Diego County Board of Education. One month earlier, the club had split over a Congressional race and rated both state senator Juan Vargas, the labor-backed candidate and former state senator Denise Moreno Ducheny “acceptable” despite Vargas’ refusal to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. In picking Foster over Ponder, the club outright endorsed a labor-backed candidate despite her difficulty articulating support for marriage equality.
When Foster filled out the club’s issues questionnaire, instead of answering whether she supported marriage equality she referred to paragraph three of a four-paragraph letter she submitted with the questionnaire and also distributed to club members at the meeting. It read, “I am a Christian woman who clearly understands that God has given men and women ‘Free Will’; and, it is not my place or any one’s place to impose their faith on others, or to take away another man or woman’s ‘free will’! This is a right that God has given and no one can take away! Many teach tolerance, understanding and acceptance; but I teach love which encompasses all!”
Under questioning from club president Doug Case, Foster acknowledged that she had attended her Lesbian sister’s wedding and finally said she would support marriage equality. But in a follow-up question, asking how she had voted on Proposition 8 — the ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages California voters approved in November 2008 — Foster said she hadn’t voted on the issue at all. Ponder said he had voted against Proposition 8 and added that as a former college administrator, “I had to serve all students. Colleges and universities have long had to deal with this directly.”
Many of the club’s questions dealt not with Queer issues but the overall challenges facing the schools today, particularly the repeated cutbacks in education funding the state has imposed on local school districts and the layoffs San Diego Unified and other districts have had to order in response to budget cuts. Asked if either of them had voted for a tax increase, Ponder said as a property owner he would have voted for higher taxes to fund education, while Foster expressed her disappointment that her union, the AFT, backed away from their proposed “Millionaires’ Tax” initiative and instead endorsed Governor Jerry Brown’s tax increase proposal after winning some changes in it. “We need real revenue for real education,” Foster said.
Facing a similar question from a different perspective — how should the district deal with its budget if more tax revenues aren’t forthcoming — Foster said, “We’re going to have to use technology in ways we haven’t before. We will have, unfortunately, to do more with that. We’ll have to bring parents into the classroom.”
“You have to look at the fiscal situation and the alternative in terms of financial structures,” said Ponder. “There are ways to make the district itself work more efficiently. We’re going to have to sit down with all the adults in the district and see what we can still be and what we can’t afford. Third, I would go to the colleges, universities and foundations and involve them. I don’t think the financial situation is going to get better any time soon.”
Maggie Allington, club member and wife of Assembly candidate Pat Washington, asked the candidates about the failed attempt by a group of business leaders called “San Diegans 4 Great Schools” to expand the school board to nine members by adding four seats that would be appointed rather than elected. “I think that’s a bad idea,” Foster said. “They [the new board members] should have to have to earn the confidence of the community and prove they have the right to be there” by winning a vote of the people.
Ponder said he regarded the defeat of the San Diegans 4 Great Schools initiative as a done deal but added, “I believe there is a role for colleges, universities and companies to play” in governing the district. “If the school board together figures out a role for them, that’s important and productive,” he said. (After the meeting, Washington told this reporter that Ponder had actually been on the sponsoring committee for the San Diegans 4 Great Schools initiative, which the club had endorsed against and urged its members and community supporters not to sign.)
Asked about charter schools, Ponder said he thought they were a sensible option for schools placed under “program improvement” by the California Department of Education — a category set up by the state to implement the federal No Child Left Behind act. According to the California Department of Education Web site, schools end up in “program improvement” if they “do not make adequate yearly progress” in standardized test scores. “We need to involve the parents and others to make sure they get out of program improvement,” Ponder said.
Foster used the charter-school question, and Ponder’s response to it, to launch a broader attack on No Child Left Behind itself and the ideology behind it that both individual students and whole schools can be measured by test scores. “There are improvements needed to No Child Left Behind,” she said. “A lot of teachers are forced to teach to the test.” She also said that 75 percent of the charter schools already established in District E have not met educational standards and have been closed.
The club overwhelmingly voted to endorse Foster, despite her reluctant embrace of marriage equality, after many members with long-standing involvements in educational issues — including San Diego State University Africana Studies department chair Dr. Shirley Weber and openly Queer San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser — strongly supported her. Ponder’s cause wasn’t helped by a leaflet he distributed that named Dr. Weber as one of his endorsers — not when she was there personally to say it was wrong and she was supporting Foster. The club’s vote was 28 for Foster, five for Ponder and three for no endorsement.
What Does the County Board Do?
Why is there such a thing as the San Diego County Board of Education, and what does it do? That was the question club president Case asked the three candidates for District 1 on the County Board: incumbent John Witt, a Republican; and challengers Gregg Robinson and Bob Cornelius, both Democrats.
“The County Board is a court of last resort for students whose families believe they have been unfairly treated by suspension or expulsion,” Witt explained. “The County Board will hold a hearing, listen to both sides and make a judgment. The County Board also sponsors specialists to help teachers and administrators, it sponsors the court schools [for students under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system] and it provides classwork for the children of migrant field workers.”
Cornelius said he worked with the County Board of Education both in San Diego and Santa Clara Counties, and in Santa Clara their County Board handles the special education program as well. He said that in addition to the powers Witt mentioned, the San Diego County Board of Education also runs the academic decathlon and the selection of the Teacher of the Year.
Witt recalled that when he first ran for the County Board in the 1990’s, after having retired from the San Diego Unified School District board, “three far-Right County Board members were rejecting federal funds for education.” Indeed, the club had felt so strongly about the radical-Right attempt to take over the County Board that Witt was the last Republican it ever endorsed before the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee changed the rules and banned local Democratic clubs from endorsing non-Democrats, even in nominally “nonpartisan” races.
But with the radical-Right threat to take over the County Board of Education seemingly in the past, the club’s debate turned on other issues. Cornelius, whose leaflet emphasized his 36 years’ work in education, said, “Education is in crisis. We’re looking at a $20 billion loss in four years. I’ve retired two or three times and I’ve come back to trouble-shoot districts in trouble. I’ve been a high school, junior high school and university-level teacher, assistant and deputy superintendent. My experience is in early childhood education.” He said he understood “the anxiety of reductions and cuts” and said that those who take seriously the idea of “equal opportunity in education” need to “help get rid of the revenue limit for education, rethink Proposition 13 — where we lost the governance of education — and eliminate the defunding of public education.”
Robinson, who as a teachers’ union leader has frequently spoken at labor-sponsored events, boasted of his endorsements by Congressmember and Mayoral candidate Bob Filner, San Diego Unified School District board member Richard Barrera, San Diego County Board of Education president Mark Anderson, and the American Federation of Teachers local 1931. “I’ve taught at the University of Texas and the University of Maryland, and I’m not afraid of a regression equation, but the most important thing is still what goes on in the classroom,” Robinson said — a direct attack on the idea that teachers can be judged by so-called “value-added” criteria based on their students’ test scores.
“One of the responsibilities of the County Board of Education is to close the achievement gap, which has been shrinking between Black and white students — but is growing between rich and poor students,” Robinson said. Responding to a question from Dr. Shirley Weber specifically on the achievement gap, Robinson argued that one of the biggest ways to address it is to stop cutting back on early childhood education. “We cannot expect teachers to compensate for cutbacks in pre-school,” he said. “The important thing is not just to fund education at current levels but to increase those levels. There’s too much scapegoating of teachers right now.”
Eventually the club endorsed Robinson by a unanimous voice vote — an unusual decision in a contested election. The club also made a number of other endorsements in school board races where either there was only one candidate running or only one Democrat, including Lyn Neylon for San Diego County Board of Education District 2. Running to unseat Republican incumbent Jerry Rindone, Neylon ran on a similar platform to Robinson’s, publicizing her endorsements by Filner, Anderson and AFT Local 1931 and stating on her campaign leaflet, “We need more educators, NOT more administrators, on the school board!”
The club also endorsed Bernie Rhinerson for District B of the San Diego Community College Board and made three “friendly incumbent” endorsements in other school board races: Mary Graham, Community College Board District D; John Lee Evans, San Diego Unified School Board District A; and Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified School Board District E.