Just four months ago, San Diego voters overwhelmingly passed Measure K, sending the message that the election of public officials shall be uniform and consistent. Proponents argue that consistency with election rules will lead to less voter confusion and ultimately increase voter engagement. During this time, my City Council colleagues made it very clear that San Diego voters shall be entitled to an election process that is consistent, clear and definitive, ensuring their elected officials truly reflect their priorities. These principles are not evident in arguably one of the most important publicly elected bodies in San Diego: the San Diego Unified School District.
Unbeknownst to many, the San Diego City Charter, the principal guiding document for the city of San Diego, oversees and outlines the process for electing members to the board of the San Diego Unified School District.
However, the language governing their election rules directly conflict with sections of our Charter that regulate elections for city officials, such as the mayor, City Council members and city attorney. Unlike school board members, the mayor, City Council members and the city attorney are controlled by accountability measures, such as term limits and district-only elections for council members.
By law, school district board members are currently allowed to serve indefinitely, in direct conflict with the rules other city elected officials must follow. Since 1992, San Diegans have purposefully put term limits in place in order to assure the ability to elect government officials that truly reflect their priorities and values. There is no reason why school board members should be afforded any less scrutiny and accountability than city, county or state elected officials who are subjected to term limits. Not doing so is a disservice to our children and future generations who deserve the highest quality of education which comes only from the best possible leadership.
Further, San Diego Unified currently uses a convoluted process to elect its board members where candidates must receive votes from voters that do not live in their own district. The school district has five board members representing five distinct sub-districts. The City Charter states that two school board member candidates will be chosen during the primary election from one of the five sub-districts. However, these candidates will have to campaign outside their district in order to receive voter support throughout San Diego Unified.
This manner of electing school board members is not clear, is confusing for voters and does not increase voter participation. The process gives unfair advantage to special interest groups — with the power of money and endorsements — to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support their preferred candidate. San Diego Unified is the only school district in the county that conducts board member elections in this way.
After years of budget deficits, including a $140 million deficit that could require laying off nearly 1,000 employees, the time has come for change. With each passing year, parents and advocates are understanding the only way to advocate for change is to get involved. This may include running for a seat on the school board, but the deck is stacked against them.
Last month, three of my council colleagues and I proposed changes to the City Charter to mandate district-only elections and term limits for school board members. These reforms will give more power to those that care about the quality of their neighborhood school. Our ballot measure will protect taxpayers by holding school board members accountable for the decisions they make to the majority of people they represent.
On March 21, the full City Council is expected to hear this proposal. I call on the remainder of my colleagues to do what is in the best interest of San Diego voters, parents and youth by approving these reforms. Parents and students are looking to the city of San Diego for leadership and it’s up to us to deliver.
Cate is the councilman for the city of San Diego’s District 6.