SAN DIEGO — A big-money attempt by local business leaders to influence a San Diego school board election has turned a normally quiet race into a debate over the role of money in local politics.
Frances Zimmerman, a dissident San Diego Unified School District trustee opposed to reforms instituted by Supt. Alan Bersin, has been targeted by a newly formed group called the Partnership for Student Achievement.
The group is spending more than $500,000 on television advertising and brochures saying that Zimmerman opposes the "back to basics" movement that Bersin has championed.
Among those bankrolling the effort are Padres owner John Moores, Qualcomm founder and chairman Irwin Jacobs, WalMart heir John Walton, longtime civic leader and financier Malin Burnham, and Leap Wireless chief executive officer Harvey White. Two local foundations have also contributed to the campaign.
Bersin has enjoyed strong support from San Diego's politically powerful business community from the beginning of his tenure as the first non-educator to lead the state's second largest school district.
Moores, Walton and Burnham contributed to the campaign in favor of a $1.5 billion school bond measure, and Moores gave $1 million to a book-buying and literacy campaign. Both were Bersin initiatives.
In the latest campaign, money donated to the Partnership for Student Achievement has been used for a barrage of television advertising that is unprecedented in San Diego school board elections, in which candidates rarely spend more than $50,000.
The ads never mention that Zimmerman is up for reelection but end with a suggestion that viewers "tell Fran Zimmerman to stop voting against school reform." The ad includes Zimmerman's office phone number.
John Johnson, chairman of the Partnership for Student Achievement, and also president of the local Urban League chapter, said he supports the ad because he believes Zimmerman is trying to thwart the best effort the school district has ever made to raise achievement levels among minority students.
"I don't see this as an attack on Fran Zimmerman," Johnson said. "Fran Zimmerman just stands against some of the basic things we stand for."
But the ad campaign has led to a backlash, including numerous letters to the local newspaper and a planned rally against what Zimmerman backers call a "hostile takeover" of the school board of the 145,000-student district.
Zimmerman, 60, a former teacher, calls it "a terribly cynical campaign to basically brainwash the public into associating my name with someone who opposes reform."
Zimmerman did not support the board's decision in 1998 to hire Bersin, the former U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties, and has opposed most of his initiatives.
Backed by a 3-2 majority, Bersin has removed principals, reduced administrative staff, fired teachers' aides, and installed a controversial plan for "peer coaches" to assist elementary school teachers in conforming to a new curriculum and testing schedule.
Bersin ended a long-held district policy that decentralized decision-making and gave teachers and parents a large share of authority in how schools are run.
Despite criticism over these moves, San Diego students showed improvements in recent reading and mathematics tests.
Zimmerman believes Bersin's management style will prove counterproductive in the long run because it has alienated parents and teachers. "He's very authoritarian," Zimmerman said.
Part of the controversy has been that Johnson's group has asserted it is not advocating the defeat of Zimmerman or the election of her opponent, lawyer Julie Dubick, and thus is not covered by the disclosure requirements covering political campaigns.
"This campaign treats the citizens of this city as though we not only fell off of a turnip truck but did so as turnips," said Ernie McCray, who resigned as an elementary school principal in disgust at Bersin's management style.
Johnson said the flap over the source of his group's money should not distract attention from the need to reform the schools. "If it's to help the children, I'd take money from the devil himself," he said.
Zimmerman said she is not surprised she has been targeted. "I'm articulate, I don't give up, and that's what is driving them crazy," she said.