Candidates Bob Filner and Nathan Fletcher demonstrate a preparedness to lead.
The race to determine who will become the next Mayor of San Diego took its next step last night at the Joan Kroc Center for Peace and Justice Theater on the campus of the University of San Diego. Nearly 300 people filled the auditorium to capacity to see the top four contenders for the top political office in San Diego square off in a debate with the intention of focusing on one issue and one issue only: Education.
Fox News personality and former NPR host Juan Williams moderated the 90+ minute event that brought out the stark contrasts between the candidates’ thoughts on San Diego’s troubled school district and what can be done to support it.
The first question of the evening went right at the overarching theme of the night: What role should the mayor have in San Diego’s education system? While City Councilman Carl DeMaio and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis mostly talked around the question, Congressman Bob Filner insisted that although “Mayors have enough to do,” the mayor should be part of a coalition to increase funding in public schools. “We’ve lost 20% of our funding to our schools while the California budget has gone up. In a generation we’ve gone from #1 in per capita spending on education to 47th. We spend $5,000 per year per student, but we spend over $50,000 per year on each prison inmate.” Filner advocated taking a more citywide approach, incorporating the city’s museums, recreation centers, and parks into a broad based approach aimed at getting kids more involved in their own education.
“The school board and teachers are doing a job that we should support,” Filner said. “We should not interfere.”
State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher pointed to the “digital divide,” and pledged to take steps to ensure that every kid in every classroom has access to a “computing device and the internet.” He said that our schools should be aimed toward bolstering the workforce, and advocated a best practices implementation approach, a concept that takes the techniques that have been proven to work best throughout the education community and implementing them system wide.
When asked if city resources should be used to improve schools, all candidates agreed to one degree or other that they should, and that the schools should be encouraged to take advantage of all of the resources that San Diego has to offer. Fletcher insisted that while the city is not in a position to commit city funds, he advocates a shared use of city facilities. “We counted 42 different organizations that are helping our schools, many of which are doing a very good job, but how do we bring them together? How do we consolidate them in one place?” As part of his plan, Fletcher proposes an educational foundation to help accomplish that goal.
On Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to raise taxes mostly on the wealthy to put back into the schools, DeMaio was vehemently opposed. “Tax hikes in the middle of a recession has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?” in reference to Prop D, the City of San Diego proposal to raise the local sales tax, lamenting that the unions and City Hall tried to strongarm the initiative through.
DeMaio made several references to his plan of instituting a system of performance based pay for teachers, and would use it to eliminate teacher tenure. However, he never once described how performance would be evaluated. “We must have accountability, but not to one test,” countered Filner. “How do you measure performance?”
“Remember why tenure came in: It was to protect against arbitrary firing and to protect academic freedom,” Filner pointed out, adding that collective bargaining was a way to fix problems in the system. “We want to have protections for teachers so they can do their job,” Fletcher said, “but at the same time we have to have a system that allows us to make course corrections.” If a teacher is not getting the job done, he said, “all of the teachers benefit by saying let’s help them move on and make sure we have good quality teachers.”
When asked specifically about the school board’s plan to ask teachers to defer raises and extend furlough days, DeMaio insisted that school administrators have not led by example, pointing out to the audience that he had declined his own pension as a member of the San Diego City Council, a move that he says saves the taxpayers $23,000 per year on his salary. It’s an admirable act to be sure, but one that comes much easier for someone who had been a successful businessman before running for City Council. The implication seemed to be that school administrators should forgo their pensions. At the same time, DeMaio stated his opposition to the step system that determines teacher pay. The step system is based on longevity and level of education.
Filner, meanwhile, insisted that the unions needed to play a part in the school reform process. The teachers are the ones who know what’s going on in the classroom, he said. “Collaboration is the key, not declaring war on employees,” in clear reference to DeMaio’s stance on dealing with public employees.
“We need to show the labor unions the way” on school reform, according to DeMaio. “It’s not surprising that the teachers’ unions continuously defend a failing system.” “Carl DeMaio’s definition of reform is destruction,” responded Filner, saying that he rejected the idea that the teachers unions are opposed to reform.
DeMaio, unsurprisingly, said he was a big fan of school vouchers, as they would promote choice and competition in our schools. Dumanis was opposed, pointing out that the issue had been overwhelmingly defeated at the polls. Fletcher agreed, saying that it was settled law.
“Public education is the foundation of democracy,” said Filner. “Vouchers are a way to put public tax money mainly to more wealthy people whether it’s in medicine and health care or education. Vouchers never pay for the whole cost, so only more wealthy people can use them, and they always penalize the poorer parts of our population.”
On the whole, Bob Filner and Nathan Fletcher turned in the most confidence inspiring performances of the evening. While they differed slightly on certain issues, each was able to articulate a plan or a specific idea that they would like to see implemented and state a case that supported their position.
Carl DeMaio’s theme of the evening was per his reputation: Anti-union and the use of strongarm tactics to get his way. There seemed very little willingness to actually sit and talk to the teachers to find a way to work cooperatively and solve problems, insisting instead on taking a “they’ll see that I’m right” approach similar to the way he has advocated dealing with city workers in pension reform. DeMaio’s approach to all of the city’s problems, as Filner chided, seems to be a scorched earth-destroy everything methodology, a “my way or the highway” attitude. DeMaio wants to run schools like they are a typical business. But they’re not a business. DeMaio’s approach to government is that of a CEO who insists on being in charge of everything. And that’s the problem with DeMaio: The more you hear him speak and the more you learn of his policy ideas, the more power hungry he comes across. There are no doubt some voters who are looking for more of a monarchal figure as Mayor of San Diego. For those voters, Carl DeMaio is the perfect candidate.
Bonnie Dumanis, for her part, just did not come across as prepared to lead this city. She was unable to articulate any concrete ideas for improving and supporting San Diego schools. For all of her experience as DA and a judge before that, she seemed out of her element. She offered painfully few specifics and failed to demonstrate an understanding of the challenges facing the San Diego Unified School District.
All in all it was a very eye-opening evening at USD.