Education Matters: Filling the Del Mar school board vacancy presents challenges
Predictably, the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Trustees voted at the March 15 board meeting to appoint someone to fill the board seat vacated Feb. 16 by Scott Wooden, rather than hold a special election.
Wooden resigned only three months into his fourth four-year term, after just being elected in Nov. 2022.
Of the eight candidates on the ballet, voters chose Wooden, Katherine Fitzpatrick and Doug Rafner – all sitting board members who ran for re-election.
Next in line was Danielle Roybal, who placed fourth in that election.
In public comments at DMUSD’s March 15 meeting, Roybal addressed the board, saying trustees should honor voters by appointing her as the next highest vote-getter. She said election results showed that she is the communities’ choice for the replacement trustee.
There are potential pitfalls in appointments to board seats, as the San Dieguito Union High School District recently discovered.
After the board unanimously appointed Ty Humes in 2021 to replace Kristin Gibson in SDUHSD’s Area 5 (most of which is also part of the Del Mar Union School District), union-led forces gathered enough signatures to force a recall and special election.
San Diego County Office of Education’s recall procedure states that valid signatures of only 1.5% of the number of registered voters in that area are required for a recall.
Of the 27,158 registered voters at the time in SDUHSD’s Area 5, 408 valid petition signatures were needed.
The DMUSD has 31,036 registered voters as of the 2022 general election, according to the Registrar of Voters, meaning that at least 466 valid signatures are needed to recall the provisional appointment. That isn’t much, should enough voters disapprove of the board’s selection.
In her public comments, Roybal alluded to a possible recall petition and forced special election, saying, “The community asks that their vote be represented.”
If the board were to appoint someone else, she said it would be costly for the district if enough signatures were gathered to force a recall.
“I am pleading with the board to please save our tax dollars and allow those funds to go to the children,” Roybal said.
In a personal statement to me later, Roybal said, “Approximately 90 letters have been sent to the board asking them to do the right thing and appoint me. Voters have made it clear that if they are bypassed and a trustee is appointed that doesn’t reflect the community’s choice, they will have no option but to recall them.”
Cost a moving target
At the March 15 board meeting, DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said someone must be appointed within 60 days of the resignation. Those 60 days are up April 17.
The other option is a special election, which she said was estimated to cost $375,000 to $700,000.
However, the cost of a special election is a moving target.
The SDUHSD election in 2021 was initially estimated to cost between $400,000 and $500,000. But, as I reported in an earlier column, SDUHSD Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas told me the actual cost was $187,428.
The reason for the initially high estimate, said Antonia Hutzell of the Registrar of Voters, was because “the initial request did not include the specificity as to the type of election being requested.”
Hutzell said actual costs vary “depending on how many jurisdictions participate, number of registered voters, number of contests on the ballot, number of candidates, number of pages in the voter information pamphlet, number of ballot drop boxes” … and other factors.
McClurg said a special election would be held in November of 2023, which would mean an empty fifth seat for about seven months.
Fitzpatrick said that is “too long to be without a fifth trustee.”
All four board members agreed that the cost of a special election was prohibitive, and a provisional appointment should be made instead.
Anyone chosen by special election, if one should be conducted after a successful recall procedure, would serve for the remainder of Wooden’s term, through November 2026.
The person appointed to the seat would sit on the board only until the next general election for governing board members, in this case until November 2024.
Then that person, as well as any other community members, could run in the general election to finish out Wooden’s term for two more years, through 2026.
The terms for DMUSD trustees Erica Halpern and Geewah Mok also expire in 2024, so there would be two elections on that ballot – one to elect two trustees to four-year terms, and one to elect one person to a two-year term.
According to San Diego County Office of Education, the appointment need not be unanimous.
“The most democratic thing to do is to let voters decide,” said school board president Mok, who ultimately agreed with fellow board members to make an appointment.
However, it can be argued that voters already did decide, by choosing the fourth top vote-getter only four months ago.
Board members can and should be worried about the easy recall process and associated costs, should they choose an unpopular candidate.
Roybal has been critical of various DMUSD actions and practices in the past, but that should not be a factor in selecting a replacement board member. It’s the voters who should be deciding.
Applications for the appointment are available at the DMUSD website and district office and must be turned in by April 6. The school board will interview candidates and make a decision in public at the board meeting the following week.
Having sat through several appointment processes, it’s awkward. Watching four people sit in judgment of applicants, and seeing them create mental – and sometimes physical – score sheets, is cringe-worthy.
Regardless of how those in positions of power may feel personally about the candidates, our democracy is based on voter choice Whether that can be sustained or over-ruled by four individuals will be closely watched.
On with the show.
Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at email@example.com.
Marsha Sutton is a columnist and presents her opinion. If you disagree or agree with her opinion, we’d like to hear from you. Email your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Column: Combines reporting, storytelling and commentary to make a point. Unlike reporters, columnists are allowed to include their opinions. Columnists in the Union-Tribune Community Press are identified clearly to set them apart from news reporters.
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