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John Lee Evans

Fixing the schools: A test on San Diego Unified for city’s mayoral candidates

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In this mayoral campaign season, public education has become one of the hot topics. At San Diego Unified, we welcome this communitywide interest in education.

A recent U-T San Diego poll showed that voters want the city to pay about as much attention to education as to jobs and the economy.

San Diego cannot be a great city without world-class schools. We all should have an interest in their success. Mayoral candidates are no exception.

Unfortunately, not all the candidates have done their homework. Carl DeMaio has blamed San Diego Unified’s budget problems on “out-of-control pension costs and a bloated bureaucracy.” The truth is that San Diego Unified’s employees and the district pay into a separate state teachers’ retirement fund. We do not have the liability or the problems of the city pension fund.

As for “bloated administration,” San Diego Unified is one of the leanest among large urban districts. The central office has been cut much more than the schools. Board members have no personal staff and have salaries less than a quarter of what City Council members are paid.

Bonnie Dumanis has made several proposals, including a financial oversight committee. We already have one. She has recommended changing the law to allow students in high school to earn dual college credit. We have been doing this for decades.

Dumanis has said we should bring all parties to the table to renegotiate costs. She should know that the district has a standing offer to the unions to negotiate concessions to save academic programs. She has suggested having four appointed board members. That proposal has already failed.

Nathan Fletcher has taken some time to learn more specifically about our schools by visiting them. He supports computer and Internet access in our schools by 2016. But the district is already rolling out computer devices for all students by 2014. We would like to invite him to visit Innovations Middle School, which provides broadband to all students at school and at home.

We welcome the call for business partnerships and internships by Fletcher and other candidates. This is a way to get more of the community to support our school system while preparing the future workforce. San Diego Met High School is already a good example of this.

Many of the district’s educational reforms have been slowed down by catastrophic budget cuts. We are still hoping that Fletcher will lead a bipartisan effort in the Legislature to fund education at the minimal level required by voters in Proposition 98. In his last year in the Legislature, he could do far more to advance saving our public schools than any initiative as mayor.

Bob Filner gets points for doing his homework by citing numerous examples of successful programs in our district. Perhaps he was at an advantage in being a former school board member, but our district has changed a lot since he was on the board.

He was aware of our rising test scores, our technology programs, our arts programs and the community schools program in Mira Mesa. He did not mention certain areas in which we do need to improve, but his call for volunteers and mentors could help in some of the lower-performing schools.

We can use the support of the mayor and all of our citizens to carry out our mission. The bully pulpit to get citizens and businesses involved in our schools is probably the biggest support that a mayor can provide. We can also look for more joint-use agreements with the city for parks and recreation, libraries and other neighborhood programs.

Here is a take-home quiz for mayoral candidates. It would be wise to answer these questions before making your own suggestions:

What is San Diego Unified’s Vision 2020? How have our test scores fared over the past few years? How are we amplifying the way we measure student achievement? What is our new focus on neighborhood schools? What is i-21? How are we preparing students for college and technical careers at the same time? How has Superintendent Bill Kowba brought management stability to the district?

Extra credit: As mayor, will you be an outspoken champion for funding San Diego schools and go to Sacramento to advocate for our children?

Evans is president of the San Diego Unified Board of Education.