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Local Elections : Far Down on City Ballot : School Board Races Take a Back Seat but Will Have Big Effect

Times Staff Writer

Although the three contests for the San Diego city schools board will appear far down on the Nov. 8 ballot, the winners will have as large a role in determining the future of San Diego as any other candidate on the ballot.

The existing five-member board, with responsibility for the instruction of 117,000 children in kindergarten through the 12th grade citywide, has taken the national debate over America’s educational future to heart with a variety of local initiatives and proposals.

Several secondary schools this fall are piloting a tougher curriculum in math, English, science and history that will eventually be expanded throughout the San Diego district. Other schools are experimenting with site-based reforms, where teachers and principals are being given greater autonomy to decide what to emphasize on their individual campuses. The board just agreed to sign a precedent-setting contract with its almost 6,000 teachers that includes provisions to further key educational reforms through more flexible work rules.

Then add the board’s regular responsibilities for textbook selection, dropout prevention, parent involvement, all with a more than half-billion-dollar budget that despite its size must be stretched to the limit to cover the many requirements faced by district trustees.

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Yet candidates for the three seats have campaigned vigorously for the opportunity to shape San Diego education at community forums.

In District A, which covers the city’s northwest area from Pacific Beach to La Jolla and inland to University City, 12-year incumbent John Witt is facing a stiff challenge from Ann Armstrong, a longtime activist in parent-teacher organizations.

In District E, with both predominantly minority Southeast San Diego and the fast-growing integrated suburbs of Paradise Hills and Bayview Terrace within its boundaries, San Diego State University professor Shirley Weber is facing school district employee Gloria Jefferson to replace retiring member Dorothy Smith.

In District D, which covers central and East San Diego neighborhoods, first-term incumbent Susan Davis is running against Bob Davis, who is no relation. Bob Davis, a physical therapist at Children’s Convalescent Hospital, qualified for the November election as a write-in candidate during the June primary.

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District A

Debate between the two District A candidates is the liveliest of the three, although no one knows whether that will translate into a tight ballot count election night. Witt, a mathematics professor at Mesa College, faced stiff opposition in two previous reelection races.

Armstrong has attacked Witt for what she says is his lack of dynamism and maintains that Witt holds onto his office because voters confuse his name with San Diego City Atty. John Witt.

Armstrong, a University City resident and special-education aide at Mission Bay High School, favors better coordination of district drug education programs, which are now run through several departments and community agencies, with mandatory instruction at the high school level. She believes the accelerated secondary-level curriculum must be put into place as quickly as possible at the elementary level, because of research she says shows that learning patterns often are set by the fourth grade. Armstrong also bemoans the board’s lack of a strong sustained presence in Sacramento, where legislators decide on 90% of the board’s budget each year.

Witt, on the other hand, has called Armstrong immature for maintaining that voters confuse him with the city attorney. Witt takes partial credit for the district’s many reforms and rising test scores, and trumpets his longstanding willingness to fight for industrial arts, music and art classes that increasingly are targeted for trims in face of more emphasis on academic classes.

To get a sense of student performance and morale, Witt says, he visits individual schools, taking over a math class for an hour or so. And Witt prides himself as a walking encyclopedia of district ups and downs during the past decade--particularly the dark years immediately after Proposition 13 when morale and performance plummeted--that he believes proves useful during board discussions.

Witt edged Armstrong, 39% to 36%, in the popular vote in the June primary.

District E

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In the District E race, Shirley Weber has collected a slew of endorsements from educational and community leaders in the black community, including one from outgoing board president Dorothy Smith. The blunt-talking professor of Afro-American studies says she wants tougher course work as a way for more minority students, in particular, to gain needed skills to break an all-too-common cycle of failure.

She would like to see more emphasis on instruction in kindergarten through fourth grade, before problems stemming from social and economic disadvantages grow out of control. Weber says she believes that strong teachers and a better curriculum can succeed with all children.

Weber also cites her administrative duties at San Diego State as good background for dealing with the school district’s sometimes-daunting bureaucracy.

Her opponent, Gloria Jefferson, stresses her many years of involvement with San Diego schools. Her children have participated both in special education and gifted programs. Jefferson has served on district advisory boards, including those studying emotionally disturbed children, guidance and counseling, curriculum development and textbook selection. Jefferson now works as an advocate who helps mediate problems between the district and parents with children in special education programs.

In the June primary, Weber garnered 63% of the vote, with Jefferson receiving 20%.

District D

First-term member Susan Davis is running for reelection in District D, pointing to board actions to improve curriculum and classroom instruction. Davis serves on many task forces, including drug-abuse prevention and the Private Industry Council youth committee, which is now providing funds to the district as a way to combine education and job training. Davis has represented the district on issues in Sacramento, although she believes state legislators need to hear more from parents.

Opponent Bob Davis says his frustration in dealing with school officials at Adams Elementary, where his two children attend, led him to take the plunge. Davis has little experience in districtwide matters, but has promised to listen to the views of parents before voting on issues, which he maintains the existing board fails to do.

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