Incumbents and union-backed candidates are again prevailing in the San Diego Unified School Board election — proving, they say, that voters support how San Diego Unified has been handling the pandemic, reopening and other key issues.
San Diego Unified is reopening cautiously and slowly and has set a tentative reopening date for January 2021.
Meanwhile the school board challengers, who trail their opponents by sizable margins, say the election results continue a familiar pattern: the candidates with union backing, funding and prior experience on the board tend to win.
Voters “went with what they knew,” said LaWana Richmond, a UC San Diego organizational development manager who ran to represent District E on the board. “People are really comfortable with the status quo.”
The leading school board candidates — incumbents Richard Barrera and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, as well as health educator and former parent volunteer Sabrina Bazzo — were all endorsed by the San Diego teachers union. All five members of the current school board were endorsed by the union when they ran.
Barrera is expected to be re-elected to his fourth term on the board, and Whitehurst-Payne to her second full term.
“I think the voters know what they’re voting for, and I think voters have overwhelmingly endorsed the approach that we’re taking in our school district,” Barrera said. “They want stability in leadership, and they want to see the direction of the district continue.”
Nonprofit consultant Crystal Trull challenged Bazzo to represent District A, while college professor Camille Harris challenged Barrera to represent District D. Richmond challenged Whitehurst-Payne to represent District E.
The amounts of money raised by the six candidates were not huge — ranging from $15,669 raised by Barrera to $0 reported by Harris, as of Oct. 17 — but the teachers union poured significant amounts into supporting candidates it endorsed.
The San Diego Education Association spent more than $364,000 on campaign costs, such as mailers and online advertising, for all three candidates this year, including the primary elections, according to campaign spending filings as of Oct. 17.
The teachers union president, Kisha Borden, did not respond to a request for comment.
Without outside funding support, Trull, Richmond and Harris said they were unable to pay for a citywide mailer, which Trull said would have cost her $35,000 to $40,000.
Meanwhile Barrera said he thinks the teachers union endorsement holds significant weight in elections because voters trust teachers, and they want to know who teachers are backing.
Richmond and Trull said they hope that Measure C, a school board reform ballot measure that is looking to pass handily, will change future San Diego Unified School Board elections to allow candidates like themselves, who were not backed by unions, to have a fairer fight.
Measure C would change San Diego Unified’s general election to be by sub-district rather than a citywide, at-large election.
Its supporters say they hope this will help level the playing field for candidates who don’t have name recognition or a lot of money to wage a citywide campaign. They said they hope Measure C will also minimize the influence of interest groups in school board elections.
Measure C “allows you to really be in your community, focus on your community, and not have to be beholden to that special interest money,” Trull said.
Trull said she hopes Measure C will also lead to a greater diversity of perspectives on the board, which tends to vote unanimously.
“There’s a reason why groups endorse certain candidates, because they think a certain way,” she said. “So for three of the candidates to be endorsed by the same type of supporter … it means they’re probably thinking all the same way, and that’s not good for any decision-making process.”
Barrera disputes the idea that teachers union support or a unified school board are a problem.
“The voters want and support a unified board that’s effective and can improve outcomes for our students, as this district has,” Barrera said. “The fact that a unified board shares a common set of values, including the value that educators who are closest to our kids should be supported and listened to … the results of this election once again confirm that that’s the type of school board that our community wants in San Diego.”
It’s unclear yet whether Measure C will lessen the influence of interest groups on future school board elections. The three union-backed candidates also received more votes than their opponents in the spring primaries, which were by sub-district only.
Barrera said interest groups still will have a large role in elections, whether they’re district-only or not. He pointed to Los Angeles Unified’s school board elections, which are by district only and which generated $17.5 million in campaign spending.
Tom Keliinoi, president of Parents for Quality Education, the group that created Measure C, said while he’s not sure that Measure C will decrease interest groups’ power in the school board election, he thinks changing elections to district-only will still make it easier for non-union-backed candidates to have a winning chance.
One concern some people had about district-only elections was that they might create board members who only or mostly care about the wants and needs of their own sub-district, rather than the needs of the district as a whole or the needs of district areas that have more low-income and disadvantaged students.
Barrera said he worries that might happen, so he hopes future school board candidates will care about equity for disadvantaged students rather than their own sub-district’s wants.
While Richmond, Harris and Trull are likely to lose, they said a message they got from constituents during their campaigns is still important: that the district needs to do better at communicating and working with parents, especially when it comes to reopening decisions.
“They need to listen to their community; they need to listen to their constituents. That’s not happening, at least that’s what I’m hearing from parents,” Harris said. “They should be at the table helping make these decisions … and I think that’s the frustration right now, that they aren’t being listened to.”
Barrera said the pandemic has made this challenging because the district does not want to communicate a decision to parents then have to backtrack on that decision due to the changing status of the pandemic. That is one reason district officials have said they were cautious about announcing a reopening date.
Still, Barrera said the district should do better.
“I think there’s always more work that the district needs to do in communicating with parents and with the community in general,” he said.
Measure D, a ballot measure that will add a way for San Diego Unified School Board members to be removed, has had a commanding lead and is expected to pass. Under Measure D, if at least four of the five board members decide that cause exists to remove a board member, a removal election will be held with voters deciding on whether to remove the board member.