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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why elections by district are best

For San Diego's North County Times

Escondido residents who believe government that's closest to the people governs best should favor district representation on their city council. Eliminating at-large positions would also save the city from having to pay a high profile Orange County attorney $350 an hour to fight a lawsuit that claims its at-large elections violates the California Voting Rights Act.

Mayor Sam Abed told this newspaper he believed district elections would hurt Latinos by isolating them geographically and economically. He worries that "districts would pit neighborhood versus neighborhood and whites versus Hispanics."

Councilmember Olga Diaz disagrees. She pointed to the advantage of having council members with more expertise on the needs of local neighborhoods. She also suggested reducing the cost of running for office would open leadership opportunities to a wider community.

Opinions appearing on this page about district elections have been mostly negative. One of my community columnist colleagues resorted to a straw man argument when he claimed someone elected from an "ethnically gerrymandered" district would be an "illegitimate officeholder," deeming the election unconstitutional. That would be true only if districts were drawn solely by ethnicity, rather than geography.

Mayor Abed's claim that it "makes no sense to divide a relatively small community," is questionable when you consider the city's demographics. Escondido, with its population of 145,000, 46 percent Latino, is the state's 38th largest city.

Residents in the city's 92025 ZIP code, city center/south, differ from those residing in the city's three other ZIP codes by income and home ownership more than skin color (source: city-data.com). Latinos compose a slight majority of its 64,000 residents. The median household income is $45,000, with 21 percent below the poverty level. Fifty-five percent are renters.
By comparison, Latinos are in the minority in each of the three other ZIP codes. The median household income ranges from $51,000 to $74,000, with only 7 to 10 percent below poverty level and only 24 to 36 percent renters.

The needs and interests of those living in ZIP 92025 are likely to be far different from those living in the three other areas. I wonder how many council members, past and present, have resided there. But the sizable range in income and home ownership in the three other areas also suggests a similar range of positions on city issues.

The word "compromise" has become a dirty word in politics. But here's one, for what it's worth. District elections by ZIP code, slightly modified to equalize populations, while keeping the mayor's position at-large, would reduce the cost of running for office, increase the likelihood of a more diverse council, bring city government closer to the people, and save taxpayers from a million-dollar court battle.

Friday, January 13, 2012

When schools close...

For San Diego's North County Times

Preparing for an expected $8 million budget shortfall next year, Carlsbad school officials are considering the closure of two schools that are substantially more costly to operate per pupil than other district schools because of their low enrollments.

Abandoning Buena Vista Elementary and Carlsbad Village Academy would save the district an estimated $1 million.

Before the schools are closed, parents will want to know how that can be done with the least disruption to their children's learning and the family's home-to-school transportation. A closer look at each school reveals how using a rigid per-pupil cost savings formula for short-term cuts could lead to a loss of educational opportunities in the long term for a vulnerable student population.

Both schools are located within the city's 92008 ZIP code, where the $51,000 median household income is lowest in the city. Forty-four percent of Buena Vista students and 47 percent of Carlsbad Village Academy students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Districtwide, only 22 percent of students are from low-income families. While 84 percent of school district parents are college educated, only 53 percent of Carlsbad Village Academy parents have ever attended college.

The picture here is clear. The two schools being considered for closure serve a socioeconomic population whose statewide student test scores in English and math have lagged from 10 to 15 percentage points behind those of their more well-to-do peers. The achievement gap between haves and have-nots has remained unchanged in the 10 years since comparative test scores have been tracked.

But Buena Vista's economically disadvantaged students buck the trend, scoring higher on the 2011 STARS tests than disadvantaged students districtwide. Sixty-seven percent of the school's disadvantaged fifth-graders were grade-level proficient in English, 68 percent in math. Only 59 percent of similar students districtwide were proficient in English, 58 percent in math.

Carlsbad Village Academy is a continuation high school that enables students who fall behind to make up credits required for high school graduation. Its small size allows for individualized instruction for students whose academic progress has been hindered by illness, unplanned pregnancies, or behavioral problems.

Only about 300 students would be affected by closing these two schools. That's less than 4 percent of the district's 8,500 students. While the pain of a million-dollar budget cut would be confined to this small group, it's sad to see schools on the chopping block that are doing so much good for families who need them most.
But don't blame Carlsbad school officials for having to balance the books on the backs of the most vulnerable. Closing schools is not just a local issue. California's November election results will tell what's to become of schools like these.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Maybe jobs aren't fleeing California

For San Diego's North County Times
My grandparents left Krasna, Bessarabia, Russia a hundred years ago, joining a flood of German immigrants to North Dakota. My parents headed west from there, making Washington State their new home. My career led me from Washington to Indiana, then back west again to California.

I thought of my Midwestern roots and our several job-related family relocations when I learned of the South Dakota governor's recent attempts to entice local businesses to move to his state. On a morning TV news quiz, I learned blizzards in the Midwest can carry wind-chill temperatures of minus-60 degrees. When asked about the weather, the governor replied, "There is no bad weather in South Dakota, only inappropriate clothing."

Conventional wisdom has it that businesses are driven out of California because of high taxes and burdensome regulations, ruining the state's economy by causing a massive loss of jobs. The media capitalize on this politically popular credo with stories designed to support the theory.

But the only independent, objective and nonpartisan report I found on the issue reveals a far different picture. Businesses are, indeed, moving to other states, but not nearly in the numbers implied by those with political axes to grind. The Public Policy Institute of California's 2010 report, "Business Location Decisions and Employment Dynamics in California," cited a 15-year study indicating that relocation causes a smaller share of jobs gained and lost in California than in most other states.

From 1992 through 2006, the thousands of jobs moving into and out of California resulted in an annual net loss of only 0.05 percent of the state's 18 million jobs. California, in fact, ranks below the national average in job losses due to business relocations. South Dakota, on the other hand, ranks fifth highest in jobs lost through relocations, at 3.6 percent of their workforce annually over the same period.

Maybe that explains the governor's North County visit.

Ignoring the facts, politicians blame California's low ranking in business friendliness for our slumping economy, pointing to reports like this year's CNBC's, "America's Top States for Business," which ranks California 47th in the cost of doing business.

So why aren't more Golden State companies fleeing to fly-over country? Maybe because California ranks first in the nation in access to capital and technology/innovation, while South Dakota ranks 35th and 49th respectively. Maybe companies like San Diego's little 1989 startup now known as Qualcomm are willing to accept higher costs of doing business in exchange for larger profits and greater potential for growth.

And don't forget the governor's observation about the need to invest in fashionable South Dakota wind-chill attire.