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Two ballot measures aim to reform San Diego Unified School District board

San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser (left) sits next to member John Lee Evans in April 2019.
San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser (left) sits next to member John Lee Evans, now the board president, at a meeting in April 2019.
(File)

Measure C is about who gets to vote for school board members; Measure D gives a way to remove them.

San Diego voters will get to decide on two ballot measures that, if passed, will change how San Diego Unified School District board members are chosen — and how they can be kicked out.

Measure C would change who gets to vote for which school board members.

San Diego Unified is split geographically into five trustee areas called “subdistricts.” Each of those areas has a representative on the board.

Currently, only voters in a subdistrict can vote for that subdistrict’s board representative during primary elections. The top two vote-getters from the primary enter the general election, which is held at large. That means voters in all five of the subdistricts get to vote on all five seats in the general election, regardless of which subdistrict they live in.

Measure C would change the general election so that only voters in a subdistrict get to vote on their representative.

The other ballot proposal, Measure D, would create a process to allow for elections to remove school board members.

Measure C

Measure C supporters say at-large elections are discriminatory in that they effectively prevent people of color from getting elected to the board. San Diego Unified’s board, like many school boards, does not match the racial diversity of the district’s students: 60 percent of the board is White, while 24 percent of the students are.

Supporters say the measure would allow for more diverse and more qualified candidates to run because candidates would not be forced to wage a large, citywide campaign. Such at-large races, supporters say, unfairly favor candidates who have more resources, political power and name recognition.

San Diego voters changed the City Council election process from at-large to subdistrict-only in 1988. Measure C supporters say it’s time for San Diego Unified to follow suit.

“I just like to put it this way: We would not allow for someone in District 1 to vote for someone in the District 7 City Council race,” said Tom Keliinoi, president of Parents for Quality Education, which has spearheaded Measure C. “No one would say that’s OK.”

A San Diego County grand jury recommended in a 2017 report that general school board elections be made into subdistrict elections because it believed it would ensure that local concerns would be better represented.

School districts across California have been changing their at-large elections to subdistrict-only elections in recent years in response to legal threats. The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 declares at-large elections to be illegal if they hinder the ability of a protected class, including certain racial groups, from electing members of their choice.

A recent SurveyUSA poll conducted for The San Diego Union-Tribune and KGTV-TV indicated support for Measure C. About 39 percent of 547 likely November voters in San Diego said they support the measure, while 14 percent oppose. About 38 percent were uncertain.

However, several people who oppose Measure C believe it would cause more inequity rather than eliminate it.

“I think it could be very harmful, primarily to poor children of color,” said Scott Barnett, a former San Diego Unified board member and president of San Diego Taxpayers Advocate.

Opponents say holding elections by subdistrict would cause elected board members to care only or mostly about the needs of their constituents in their own subdistrict rather than the needs of other parts of San Diego Unified or the district as a whole.

Board Vice President Richard Barrera, who is running for reelection in November, has said this would work to the disadvantage of communities of color because, out of the five seats on the school board, three are assigned to areas north of Interstate 8 and two are assigned south of I-8, where there are more students of color.

Barrera was the only school board candidate for November’s election to say in a recent election forum that he opposes Measure C.

Barnett said the fact that board members north of I-8 have the majority of seats will matter when the board votes on how to allocate money and other resources to schools.

“Politicians north of 8 will have a significant incentive to make sure every penny stays there, and board members fear the wrath of their subdistrict,” Barnett said.

While some Measure C proponents say subdistrict-only elections are needed to increase racial diversity on the board, Barnett said there already is diversity on the board. The two seats south of I-8 are occupied by people of color: Barrera, who represents south-central San Diego, is Latino, while Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who represents southeast San Diego and also is running for reelection, is African-American.

And although many San Diego County school boards have switched to district-only elections in recent years, school board diversity has not notably improved, experts say.

Measure D

City Council members Vivian Moreno and Chris Cate initiated Measure D last year in response to allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment lodged against school board member Kevin Beiser.

The allegations, which Beiser has denied, came from four men active in San Diego politics and were not directly related to Beiser’s school board work. A civil lawsuit filed by one individual has been settled.

All of Beiser’s fellow board members called for him to resign last year, but he refused and remains a board member.

Under Measure D, if four of the San Diego Unified board’s five members decide there is cause for removing another member, voters would get to decide whether to kick the person out.

Cause is defined in the city charter as dereliction of duty or malfeasance in office, meaning the official committed “crimes of moral turpitude” or violated his or her duties.

“We have to have a process set up in case these scandals do occur,” Moreno said. “Basically, Measure D protects the public from public officials who are convicted of a crime but refuse to do the right thing and resign.”

Beiser was not charged with a crime.

Currently, voters can get rid of a school board member if they initiate a recall election by collecting signatures from 15 percent of voters. Proponents of Measure D say a recall election is difficult to accomplish and that the requirement places a burden on voters to initiate it.

Measure D’s removal election process already exists for the City Council; Measure D would extend it to the school board.

“I think it’s high time we hold them accountable and to the same standards that apply to myself and to any other elected official,” Moreno said.

The school board approved a resolution last year urging city officials to advance the proposal that would become Measure D.

No argument against the measure was filed with the county elections office.

If Measure D passes, it likely would have no effect on Beiser. In addition to not being convicted of any crime, he has not been officially found to have failed to perform his duties as a school board member. ◆


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