Education Matters: Time for term limits

Too many school board members regard their elected positions as full-time careers and have served on school boards far longer than is reasonable. 

Term limits have been supported by citizens for many elected posts, including the president of the United States, state and federal office holders, and numerous county and city positions.

Mark Powell, in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed last year, wrote that polling consistently shows support for term limits for elected officials. Yet it’s not done for school board members.

Powell, who was just elected to the San Diego County Board of Education, wrote, “Serving as a school board member should not be a career” and that serving for decades can “lead to stagnation and a lack of fresh decision-making.”

He said, “School boards thrive when new ideas are allowed to flourish” and that a school board works best “when people are allowed to infuse new ideas and come up with creative and innovative teaching strategies.”

In this newspaper’s feature last August on the San Dieguito Union High School District candidates running for school board, incumbent Joyce Dalessandro is quoted as saying, “I love my job!”

Dalessandro was just elected last November to her sixth term.

No one will deny that experience counts for something. But as Powell said, it’s not supposed to be a job or career. 

SDUHSD board member John Salazar agrees with Powell and supports the idea of term limits. 

Salazar, who was first elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, said in a March 3, 2016 San Diego Union-Tribune article, “It makes sense to get some turnover.”

His proposal as envisioned would not apply to sitting trustees, only to future school board members.

Dalessandro, who has served on the San Dieguito board since 1996, said in the same U-T story that she would not support term limits for school board members.

“Term limits limit the choice the public has,” she is quoted as saying. “If you have a great board member, they then can get termed out. What is the intelligence there?”

“It takes a long time to learn the in’s and out’s of a school district. It’s a very long learning process,” added Dalessandro, who if she finishes her term of office in 2020 will have served for 24 years as a San Dieguito trustee.

Unjustly vilified

That it’s a long learning process may be true. But almost all elected officials have a learning curve to get up to speed. No one walks in fully knowledgeable.

Yes, long-time board members may be more educated about how school districts operate, due to longevity, and they have historical perspective. 

But school board members are not unique among all other elected positions. They do not require special knowledge or higher intelligence. It’s nothing that smart, committed individuals can’t learn.

After serving multiple terms in office, trustees feel protective of the legacy they’ve helped to create and the need to preserve a particular ideological point of view. But this shuts out others who may have much to contribute and may be quick studies. 

Encouraging potential candidates with similar views to run in their stead is a tactic frequently employed by veteran trustees who decide they want out. 

This protects the long-time school board member’s agenda by ensuring that their pet issues remain intact and their particular ideology continues.

But does it cross the line when trustees hand-pick their successors, get the backing of special interests, and work behind the scenes to unduly influence the election?

Qualified candidates who can infuse a school district with fresh vitality, energy and new ideas are often discouraged when faced with the decision to challenge entrenched incumbents. It takes a special kind of person to take that on.

Last year, there was no more qualified, knowledgeable and energized San Dieguito school board candidate than Lucile Lynch. But because she was running against two long-time incumbents, Dalessandro and Beth Hergesheimer, she lost.

Perhaps the bigger reason she lost is because she was unjustly vilified by the San Dieguito teachers union which campaigned vigorously for the two incumbents who had just months before approved a huge raise for teachers.

Lynch is a woman who reasonably – and very respectfully – questioned board decisions about the budget, salary increases, spending priorities and vendor contracts.

She was not, as the union insisted, a rubber stamp for an anti-teacher agenda. She was an independent thinker who owed allegiance to no one, not least of all the board minority. She was engaged, articulate, dedicated and intelligent.

And yet she lost, a loss for students and parents in the district as well. Beating veteran incumbents, especially incumbents endorsed by the teachers union, can be an insurmountable challenge.

Fresh enthusiasm

For local school districts, the following trustees are serving three or more terms of four years each:

San Dieguito Union High School District:

*Joyce Dalessandro, first elected in 1996, now serving her sixth term which expires in 2020

*Beth Hergesheimer, first elected in 2004, now serving her fourth term which expires in 2020

Encinitas Union School District:

*Marla Strich, first elected in 1998, now serving her fifth term which expires in 2018

Cardiff School District :

 *Nancy Orr, first elected in 1988, now serving her eighth term which expires in 2020 

Solana Beach School District :

*Vicki King, first elected in 2006, now serving her third term which expires in 2018

 *Rich Leib, first elected in 2008, now serving his third term which expires in 2020

*Debra Schade, first elected in 2002, now serving her fourth term which expires in 2018

The Rancho Santa Fe School District and the Del Mar Union School District each have five trustees, all serving either their first or second terms of office.

In the cases of Cardiff and Encinitas, it’s less of an issue when only one trustee out of five is a long-timer. But in San Dieguito and Solana Beach, it’s time for new blood. 

No one would question that longevity offers advantages. But someone – especially a younger board member who still has children attending district schools – can offset the loss of a veteran by providing the district with new, exciting ways to think about problems and solutions and by contributing fresh enthusiasm that prevents school boards from becoming stagnant.

Maybe the limit is two terms, maybe three. But beyond that, it becomes tedious and even obstructionist, as newcomers who would like to contribute to the process as public servants are shut out.

At some point, veteran trustees need to step aside – and step aside completely – to give other voices a chance to be heard. Term limits may be the only way to force the issue.

 

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There is potential good news on the legislative front for proponents of later school start times. 

On Feb. 13, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino introduced Senate Bill 328 which would require all Calif. middle and high schools to start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. 

The science is clear, he said, that “starting the school day later improves the quality of education, health and welfare of our children.”

Portantino’s news release cited studies that confirm that insufficient sleep in teens “poses a public health risk and has an adverse effect on academic success.”

In addition, later start times would improve attendance. Since funding is tied to attendance, Portantino’s office said that the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, would gain about $40 million per year if attendance improved by just 1 percent.

The benefits of later school start times for adolescents struggling with changing circadian rhythms have been irrefutably documented by leading scientific and medical professionals and organizations for so many years that it’s astonishing why districts like San Dieguito continue to be unresponsive.

Excuses – like a disruption of bus schedules and after-school sports, and an inconvenience to parents and teachers – ring hollow when districts claim to support their students’ health, well-being and academic success.

A 9 a.m. start time would be even better, but 8:30 a.m. is progress. 

School districts have ignored the data on the benefits of later start times for decades now. Finally, they may be forced to act in students’ best interests.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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