In what may be the worst case of political overkill in a school
district election, over half a million dollars is being spent
by wealthy businessmen in an effort to oust a single individual,
Frances OíNeill Zimmerman, from the San Diego City School Board.
The money, which is being channeled through a non-profit organization
called the Partnership for Student Achievement, is paying for
television ads that are clearly designed to convince the public
to vote Zimmerman out of office on election day.
Zimmerman has drawn the ire of the local chamber of commerce
and supporters of Superintendent Alan Bersin, in part because
she does not agree with Bersinís authoritarian way of running
the district. She also has blocked a proposed land deal that would
be profitable to local business interests but not necessarily
the school district. Zimmermanís election opponent, Julie Dubick,
is a personal friend of Bersin and a partner in a law firm that
has represented some of those business interests in one of the
proposed land deals.
Another issue aggravating Zimmermanís opponents is her strong
support for the current policy that prohibits military recruiters
from obtaining the school districtís list of student names, addresses
and phone numbers. The adoption of this policy by the school district
in 1993 has been a serious problem for the Pentagon. San Diego
has the nationís eighth largest urban school district, and not
having access to phone numbers for such a large student population
has been extremely inconvenient for the military recruiting command.
Members of the chamber of commerce, Superintendent Bersin and
trustee Ron Ottinger, a Bersin supporter on the school board,
have all been trying to get the student list policy reversed.
Bersin has stated his opinion that, in general, the district needs
to be more cooperative with military recruiting, but it is clear
that this is not likely to happen soon if Zimmerman is reelected.
Sponsors of the television ads attacking Zimmerman are using
the umbrella of a non-profit organization to avoid a $500 limit
on individual campaign contributions. This also avoids the requirement
that names of donors be reported. However, the local news media
discovered that the $540,000 fund for the ads includes money donated
by San Diego Padres owner and high-tech venture capitalist John
Moores ($100,000), Wal-Mart heir John T. Walton ($100,000), Qualcomm
founder and CEO Irwin Jacobs ($100,000), and San Diego real estate
mogul Malin Burnham ($50,000). Two mysterious contributions were
also made by East Coast foundations: the Public Interest Project
Inc. ($60,000) and Essential Information Inc. ($110,000). Education
issues have never been on the public agenda of these foundations,
and neither one has been forthcoming about why they are involved
and where funds came from that were forwarded to the group sponsoring
the anti-Zimmerman ads in San Diego.
The president of the local Urban League, John Johnson, is also
the chair of the Partnership for Student Achievementís board of
trustees. When he was asked about the source of the money, he
replied, "It doesnít matter where the money comes from. I
would take money from the devil if it would help the children
with back-to-basics education reform." (One has to wonder
about his definition of "reform," given that there is
nothing reformist about a few wealthy, well connected men trying
to buy an election.)
Two other incumbents are up for reelection on the school board,
both of whom have called for Zimmermanís defeat. One of them,
Ron Ottinger, is closely allied with the chamber of commerce and
is a staunch supporter of the Pentagonís JROTC program. He originally
voted for the policy banning recruiter access to student lists,
but has since backtracked on the issue. The other incumbent, Ed
Lopez, recently declined to give his view on the student lists
issue and has generally voted in the bloc supporting Superintendent
Bersin. Lopez has also enjoyed past support from the chamber of
If Zimmerman loses the election, a 4-1 "super-majority"
could be formed to meet the legal requirement for passing the
questionable land deals. There would also be enough votes to bring
down the barriers that have held back further militarization of
San Diego City schools.
The implications of this struggle over a single school board
seat go way beyond the matter of a few commercial transactions
and recruiter phone calls to students at home. Public schools
play a key role in shaping the values and worldview of each new
generation; the military, business elite and conservatives, in
general, have clearly understood this relationship and placed
great importance on controlling the way young people are educated.
Those of us who want to create a different kind of society that
is dedicated to peace and social justice must also place a strong
emphasis on influencing what goes on in our local schools. Failing
to do so will only ensure that, in the long run, we will always
be waging an uphill struggle that brings far more losses than
victories. If we want to avoid this, then school board elections
and other educational issues must be given a top priority in our
strategies for social change.
Information sources: San Diego Union-Tribune, October
10, 2000; San Diego Reader, October 19, 2000.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter
of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org).