September 23, 2023


education gives you strength

San Diego Unified school board candidates talk reopening, school funding

At one of the first forums for San Diego Unified School Board races, candidates shared ideas about reopening, school choice and school funding.

Three seats on the five-member school board are up for grabs. The board governs the second-largest school district in the state, with roughly 100,000 students and a $1.5 billion budget.

UC San Diego organizational development manager LaWana Richmond is challenging current Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne to represent District E, which is southeast San Diego.

College professor Camille Harris is challenging current Trustee Richard Barrera to represent District D, which is south central San Diego.

And health educator Sabrina Bazzo is facing off with nonprofit consultant Crystal Trull to represent District A, which is north central San Diego. Board President John Lee Evans, who represents District A, is not running for re-election.

Wednesday’s forum was held via Zoom by Parents for Quality Education President Tom Keliinoi and Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis.

Much of the forum focused on the candidates’ thoughts about reopening.

San Diego Unified will reopen in phases, first bringing back as many as 12,000 elementary students who have learning loss and students with high special education needs for limited, in-person support sessions.

The district will be notifying parents next month whether their children are eligible for the support sessions, Barrera said during the forum. The in-person sessions would begin next month, Barrera added.

Previously district officials said the in-person support sessions would start as early as late September.

Barrera said the next phase will be to reopen all elementary school students on at least a hybrid basis — with students learning in school part of the time. That phase would ideally start in early November, he said.

“If it goes well and hopefully it will in the first phase, then I think we’ll be able to move to the next phase sooner,” Barrera said.

But many parents have said they are frustrated that the district has not publicized a reopening timeline and they want the district to reopen sooner. On Tuesday, parents protested in front of the district headquarters, saying their children need in-person learning.

Whitehurst-Payne said what district officials have been saying for months — that they don’t want to rush reopening, for the sake of people’s safety.

“I don’t want to jeopardize their lives or anybody else’s lives,” Whitehurst-Payne said, referring to students.

Challengers Richmond, Harris and Trull all said they think the district is not being transparent enough or doing enough to communicate with parents about issues like reopening.

“Thankfully, I’m here in this forum because I heard more about the plan tonight from Trustee Barrera than I have in the past few months,” said Trull, whose children attend district middle and elementary schools.

Richmond said she thinks parents protested Tuesday mainly because they want more communication from the district about their decision-making process.

“They’re just asking for an understanding of what’s going on,” Richmond said. “I am certain that there’s information that could be shared that has not been shared.”

When it comes to school choice, the candidates generally said they support families’ right to choose.

Trull focused on choosing between district schools and charter schools, which are public schools run independently of a district. Trull said she thinks San Diego Unified could learn from charter schools, which she says are more flexible and can adapt more quickly than the district.

Barrera said the district’s approach has been to amplify neighborhood schools as a quality choice, in response to large numbers of families leaving neighborhood schools.

“But what we don’t wanna do is promote neighborhood schools by saying you can’t have access to choice, and that’s a difficult line to balance,” Barrera said.

Harris said that, as a college professor, she sees students come in unprepared for college.

“Obviously what’s not being done is they’re not being prepared at the K-12 level,” Harris said.

She said the district needs to provide district neighborhood schools more resources, such as counselors, if they want to enroll more students in those schools.

When discussing San Diego Unified’s constant need to cut and balance its budget, Barrera and Bazzo stressed that California underfunds its schools compared to most states.

“There’s never enough money to cover what we want to do in the next year,” Barrera said.

Barrera said passing statewide Proposition 15 and more federal funding could help fix district budget troubles.

Proposition 15 is a November ballot measure that would reverse California’s decades-old Proposition 13, which limits property taxes for commercial real estate worth more than $3 million. Prop 15 would provide $6.5 billion to $11.5 billion more to local governments and schools.

The school board challengers suggested the onus is on the district to be more efficient with its money rather than counting on others to cure its financial struggles.

“Everybody wants more money … but we can reduce costs, which frees up money that we already have to be used in a different way,” Richmond said.

Harris said she wants an audit of the district’s spending. Richmond and Harris said they would like to see something like the University of California’s Working Smarter Initiative — a cost-saving project that generated $664 million for the UC — happen in San Diego Unified.

Trull said she is concerned nonprofits and small businesses could be impacted by Prop 15. Harris pointed out that only 40 percent of the new money raised by Prop 15 would go to schools and community colleges.

All the other candidates said they support Prop 15. Bazzo said Prop 15 would not target small businesses, but wealthy businesses.

“It’s hitting people that should’ve been paying these taxes for many many years, and it’s still not going to be enough for what we really need,” Bazzo said.

Candidates were also asked for their stance on Measure C, a San Diego ballot measure that would make the general elections for San Diego Unified School Board seats district-only. Currently board candidates are elected by district in the primary, then by the entire San Diego Unified district electorate in the general election.

Barrera was the only candidate to oppose the measure. He said it disadvantages communities south of 8 because there are only two board seats apportioned for south of 8, while there are three north of 8. So, he said, communities south of 8 would only get a say in choosing less than half the board’s members, whereas now all San Diego communities get a say in all board seats.

Other candidates said they support Measure C because running a citywide election is difficult and expensive.

Trull said district-only elections are more likely to elect candidates with a diversity of opinions; if it’s a citywide election, the same kinds of candidates who are able to garner a lot of resources tend to get elected.

“I really get upset sometimes when this board is constantly agreeing with each other,” Trull said. “There’s like no discussion, no disagreement amongst each other, and I really think that’s the basis of how decisions should be made.”

The election is Nov. 3.

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