Education Matters: No perfect solution for filling an unexpected board vacancy


The Del Mar Union School District, as of this writing, has yet to decide how to fill the school board seat just vacated by Scott Wooden, who resigned Feb. 16 after being arrested for soliciting prostitution on Feb. 11 in a sting operation in Florida.

“Where would we be with a human trafficking operation without an elected official,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was quoted as saying, according to multiple news reports.

Marsha Sutton
(Copyright of Marsha Sutton)

Wooden, 60, was booked into Polk County jail on Feb. 11 and released Feb. 13 after posting $500 bail.

Upon his arrest, news sources reported the scandalous details and revealed that Wooden said he “got caught doing something stupid.”

Apparently he was attempting to minimize the fact that he actually did something immoral and illegal. Stupid is when you forget to shut the freezer door.

Making matters worse, he phoned in as a full DMUSD board member to a closed session board meeting on Feb. 15 and participated remotely, without notifying DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg or fellow board members that he’d been arrested four days prior.

“Scott Wooden participated for one agenda item in Closed Session on 2/15/23, Agenda Item 2.1 Conference with Labor Negotiator,” McClurg said in an email. “He did not tell us that he had been arrested.

“[T]he first time we found out about Scott Wooden’s arrest was the following day, which was Thursday, February 16, 2023.”

Perhaps he thought the news would not come out and he could just carry on as a school board member?

The district called the news shocking.

Wooden’s succinct resignation letter was sent Feb. 16 at 2:52 p.m. to McClurg and San Diego County Office of Education Superintendent Paul Gothold.

“I am resigning my position on the Del Mar Union school board effective today,” Wooden’s letter reads in full.

“The board has not yet determined the process for filling the vacancy,” McClurg said, noting that the district is exploring options.

The next scheduled board meeting is March 15. “We anticipate finalizing and posting the agenda on March 10, 2023,” she said.

Leave it empty

First elected in 2010, Wooden was re-elected to his fourth four-year term in November 2022, and his term expires in 2026, leaving nearly the full four years remaining.

Several possible alternatives for filling the vacancy present themselves.

Leaving the seat open until Wooden’s term expires is not an option, according to the California Education Code. This would mean a four-member board for almost four years.

The San Dieguito Union High School District board opted (not unanimously) not to fill the vacancy after trustee Melisse Mossy resigned in April 2022. But Mossy’s term was up in November of 2022, so only six months remained.

Normally, having a four-member board for only six months would not be a problem. But with a 2-2 divided board, SDUHSD was deadlocked on many issues.

However, the DMUSD board does not seem to have the same kind of internal conflict with its teachers union that plagued San Dieguito. So several months of a four-member Del Mar board would be less problematic.

Still, leaving the seat vacant for as long a period of time as legally allowed would deny the board and constituents the more immediate benefit of a fifth voice that could bring fresh perspective.

Appoint someone

The board could appoint Wooden’s replacement, but this has its downsides.

With board appointments, voters are denied a voice in selecting their representative.

Board appointments also give the incumbent a significant advantage should they choose to run for the seat after the term expires.

If voters are happy with the appointment, then that works well. But if not, and given that they had no say in who was appointed, it’s providing an unfair benefit to someone voters initially had no choice but to accept.

Some elected officials are appointed to fill vacancies under the condition that the person agree not to run for the seat in a general election once the term of office is over. But this can result in little buy-in and a lack of incentive to study long-term effects of decisions made.

Then there’s the recall possibility.

Because the number of signatures required to recall a provisional appointment is so low (it’s a small percentage of the total number of registered voters in that district or sub-district), board appointments can easily be challenged.

When Kristin Gibson resigned from the San Dieguito school board in March 2021, after being elected to her first term in 2018, she had about 18 months left to serve.

After interviewing numerous candidates to replace Gibson, the board in April 2021 unanimously appointed Ty Humes to the seat, to finish out Gibson’s term.

However, SDUHSD’s teachers union and its allies took exception to the appointment and organized a recall petition.

After a legally sufficient number of valid signatures was obtained (only 399 were needed), the county ended the provisional appointment in June 2021.

The district then held a special election in November 2021 at its own expense, and Humes lost to Julie Bronstein who was backed by the teachers union.

Bronstein served out the remainder of Gibson’s term, just one year, before losing this past November to challenger Phan Anderson.

According to SDUHSD Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas, the district spent $187,428 on the special election – nothing to sneeze at but certainly not the estimated $500,000 that was originally reported.

It’s debatable though if the $187,000 in taxpayer money was well-spent, to elect a trustee to serve for just one year.


In the past 10 years and out of 92 vacancies, only one other special election besides San Dieguito’s (the Rancho Santa Fe School District in 2018) “was not lumped into an upcoming primary or general election,” said Aaron McCalmont, San Diego County Office of Education’s legal analyst at the time.

He said some districts, because of the expense, have avoided holding a special election by “ordering the election to be consolidated with a primary or general election.”

Del Mar could decide to continue until June or November of 2024, with a provisional appointment until that time of someone, in a kind of hybrid model, who was not interested in running for the seat in an upcoming election but who was involved in the community and wanted to serve.

Then the district could consolidate an election for Wooden’s vacant seat with a primary or general election.

This would save money and give voters the right to choose their fifth trustee.

Terms are up in 2024 for DMUSD board members Erica Halpern and Gee Wah Mok, so the board could decide to add Wooden’s seat to the ballot at that same time.

Special election

For San Dieguito to be forced to hold a special election with about one year left in Gibson’s term made little sense and was not a good use of $187,000 of taxpayer money.

But Del Mar’s circumstances are quite different, making a fourth option, holding a special election this year, a reasonable path forward.

With nearly four years remaining on Wooden’s term of office, there are good reasons to justify the cost.

There’s no perfect solution when a school board suddenly needs to fill a vacancy. Many options are available, including circumventing the entire dilemma by simply appointing the person who received the most votes in November 2022 after the top three who won (Wooden being among them). That fourth-place person would be Danielle Roybal.

Four years is a long time for four people to unilaterally select someone to represent constituents without a vote from the public.

Allowing voters to choose their fifth board member – either by special or consolidated election, or appointing Roybal as the runner-up in the Nov. 2022 election – shows respect for parents and community members who have the right to have a say in who will speak for their concerns and interests.

We’ll see how the Del Mar Union School District decides to move forward.

This column has been updated to offer new options and corrected to indicate that leaving the seat open is not possible.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at

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