Thursday, May 17, 2018
By Megan Burks
More than three hours into the recording of a San Diego Unified committee meeting on school board elections, an unidentified voice says, “Wow.”
It comes right after a 7-5 majority approved forwarding a proposal to voters that would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in school board elections.
The recording doesn’t offer certainty on what’s behind the reaction, but the vote was in direct opposition to the findings of a just-completed, weeks-long community survey which found nearly 70 percent of respondents were against the idea. A draft report on the survey, done by members of the same committee, did not recommend opening school board elections to those under 18.
Even before the survey was done, some wondered why the idea was included. It was never a part of the discussions that led to forming the committee.
Education advocate Bret Caslavka said he believes the intent was “to distract from the issues at hand.”
Caslavka is one of several people pushing to get term limits and local-only races for school board elections after a grand jury report recommended the changes last year. His group, Community Voices for Education, submitted one of four proposals that would have put the ideas before voters this year. The San Diego City Council Rules Committee blocked them all, instead going with a plan from trustees Richard Barrera and Sharon Whitehurst-Payne to form a committee that would foster community engagement around the proposals — and letting minors vote.
Over the course of its meeting Monday, the committee struck draft recommendations that aligned with the grand jury report. Instead, it recommended the school board pursue a ballot initiative on term limits and lowering the voting age in board elections.
If such an initiative makes it to the ballot in November, the committee’s own data suggests it would fail. Though 81 percent of those surveyed online support term limits, 69 percent disapprove of letting minors vote on trustees. And just over half of those who attended town hall meetings said minors shouldn’t vote.
So what happened? Suzy Reid, a parent who sits on the District Advisory Council and wrote the draft report with help from other committee members, said personal opinions got in the way.
“My assumption was that members of the committee would take the online survey and, therefore, be included in the community input,” she said via email. “I hope City Council and the School Board are able to identify the differences between the draft and the final version and that they can see the influence the committee itself had on the final report.”
Whether that goes against the committee’s mandate is unclear. It was told to solicit community feedback, but there’s a lack of consensus in board documents and among the committee members themselves on whether superseding that feedback is a problem.
“I’m still confused — I don’t think I ever fully understood — what our task was, in terms of are we here to facilitate the town hall meetings and to provide aggregate data from the public?” committee member Joyce Clark asked during the meeting. “Or are we here to put our personal recommendations?”
“Several people have said we’re supposed to just report on what the community wants to do. And I disagree strongly,” Chris Wilson said. “I think, I deduce, I also have experience that I think I was put in this board to utilize in making a recommendation. Do I consider the public’s feedback? Yes. But am I only going to consider their feedback and be a parrot and put in the report what they said? No.”
Parroting definitely didn’t happen. Despite popularity among survey respondents and town hall attendees, local-only elections and adding more trustees didn’t make the cut. Instead, the committee is recommending that the board further study those reforms.
“By and large, where the majority of the committee members landed was someone needs to do more of a real voting analysis around who would be empowered,” said Clare Crawford, a committee member and senior policy advisor for In The Public Interest, a labor-friendly think tank.
Committee members expressed concern over inadvertently disenfranchising voters south of Interstate 8, where there are just two trustee areas. Switching to local only elections would mean they would only have a say in two of five school board races.
Several committee members also said they observed confusion around the issue at the town halls and, thus, didn’t trust the survey outcomes.
“I believe there’s a lot of questions and concerns over how the forums went, how the survey went — how forums were dominated by individual people, how people could take the survey multiple times,” teachers’ union president Lindsay Burningham said at the meeting. “The rushed nature of this process has resulted in us not having the information we need to accurately make a recommendation to this district, so I am not comfortable making a recommendation.”
But that calls into question why the committee recommended a proposal on letting teenagers vote in board elections. Few jurisdictions have tested the waters on lowering the voting age. And the committee’s survey results suggest San Diegans don’t want to be the ones to do it.
That’s why, to Caslavka, it looks like a political diversion.
Though school board races are technically nonpartisan, the trustees do have a political stake in the recommendations and a potential ballot measure. Democrats have long maintained power on the board with backing from labor unions, often weighing in on pressing political issues such as immigration at the dais. Term limits and local-only elections could disrupt that.
Crawford, however, called the idea that the committee is engaged in political maneuvering “a ridiculous premise.”
“Most of these people on this committee are not political consultant-types who are thinking, ‘How can I craft this so when people see it in November it fails?’” she said. “I just don’t think that anyone was thinking at that level.”
The committee’s recommendations are also just that — recommendations. The board is expected to decide whether to move forward with them at its meeting on May 29. From there, the proposal would have to get city council approval before landing on the November ballot.