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From Draft NOtices, November-December 2000


San Diego has become a major battleground in the struggle between the military-corporate complex and civilian public education.

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 commerce.

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 (

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