A guide to the San Diego Unified School Board races

Four people are vying for two seats on the San Diego Unified School Board, which oversees the state’s second-largest district of about 95,000 students and a $1.7 billion budget.

Curriculum company manager and Republican Becca Williams is facing off with county policy advisor and Democrat Cody Petterson to represent sub-district C, which covers the western, coastal part of San Diego Unified School District that includes La Jolla, Mission Bay, Point Loma and University City High Schools.

San Diego Unified School Sub-District C

Retired San Diego Unified principal and Democrat Godwin Higa is facing off with nonprofit consultant and Democrat Shana Hazan to represent sub-district B, which covers the northeastern section of San Diego Unified that includes Canyon Hills High School in Tierrasanta, Kearny High in Kearny Mesa and Patrick Henry High in San Carlos.

School boards oversee and govern school districts but do not manage them. That’s the job of the superintendent, whom the board hires. School boards also approve the annual budget, set district policies and priorities, approve contracts, make collective bargaining agreements with employee unions and more.

While the board candidates have their own ideas of what they’d like the district to do, any board decision requires at least three out of five votes to pass. The current San Diego school board members — all of whom have been endorsed by the teachers union and Democrat leaders during elections, which are officially nonpartisan — frequently vote unanimously on agenda items.

Here’s a rundown of the four candidates. You can find lengthier Q&A articles with each candidate here.

Sub-district B

Shana Hazan

Shana Hazan, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district B

Shana Hazan, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district B

(Courtesy photo)

Shana Hazan, 41, is a San Diego native who graduated from Scripps Ranch High School. Her daughter attends Franklin Elementary in Kensington, where Hazan is a founding member of the school foundation and a member of the school site council.

Hazan, who was a school teacher for two years, has spent most of her career has been in the nonprofit sector, including 12 years at Jewish Family Services. As a nonprofit officer, she said she developed strategic plans, managed large teams and budgets, and created partnerships with organizations and donors — all skills she believes would help in overseeing a large organization like San Diego Unified.

“When I have a vision for a program or initiative, I know how to secure the resources required,” said Hazan, who is now a nonprofit consultant.

Hazan said her main priority, if elected, would be to close opportunity and achievement gaps by providing holistic services to students and families beyond just academics, ranging from health care to mental health services to early childhood education.

To accomplish that, Hazan said, the district needs to collect detailed data that shows who is struggling the most academically and mentally, then coming up with a plan with community members to deploy spending to serve those students.

“I don’t consistently see that outcome orientation on our school board,” Hazan said.

Hazan also suggested focusing on professional development, recruitment and retention of effective principals; re-evaluating staff salaries and benefits to make sure they are competitive enough; and increasing the number of community schools, which offer holistic health, economic and other resources.

When asked to grade the current school board, Hazan said she would give it a B minus because she doesn’t see the group using evidence- and research-based strategies to guide where it spends money. She agreed with other candidates who said the district needs to improve its transparency and interaction with families and the community.

“I don’t think there’s a culture of trust both within the district and with external stakeholders,” she said.

Godwin Higa

Godwin Higa, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district B

Godwin Higa, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district B

(Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hawaii native Godwin Higa, 70, was a teacher, vice principal and principal in the district for 27 years. He last served as principal of San Diego Unified’s Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights.

Now retired from public schools, he is an adjunct professor of psychology at Alliant International University, where he teaches about restorative justice. He also works as a restorative justice consultant for schools in Hawaii.

Higa said his education experience sets him apart from the other candidates.

“I can really focus on what’s best for students, because I’ve experienced it,” he said. “When people are supporting someone with very little education experience, I question that. I question what is the agenda and what are they trying to do.”

Higa said his top three priorities are student mental health, safe schools and fiscally responsible leadership.

Higa said schools are safe when staff members help students address traumas in their lives, like poverty, that may be causing them to do poorly in school, rather than punish them for it. For example, Higa said he eliminated suspensions at Cherokee Point and instead had students take action to repair the harm they caused with their misbehavior.

Higa also said schools should be physically secured to protect students and staff from intruders and other dangers. That means securing school perimeters, for example by reducing the number of ways to enter the campus, and in some cases using metal detectors at entrances to detect potential weapons, Higa said.

To be more fiscally responsible, Higa said, the district needs to provide more funding to schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

He said he was one of many principals who had to beg for funding, even though Cherokee Point received more federal aid as a Title I school. He remembers having to choose between offering music, PE and art for students, as Cherokee did not have a private foundation like schools in high-income neighborhoods did to pay for those programs.

Higa said he would give the current board an A for how it handled the pandemic, because the board followed the advice of UC San Diego science and health experts to minimize COVID spread in schools.

“I would do the same thing, I would vote to close. Whatever it takes to protect students and staff from the virus,” Higa said.

However, Higa said, he would give the board a B for how it handled students’ return to school, saying the district fell short in addressing student and staff mental health.

Sub-district C

Cody Petterson

Cody Petterson, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district C

Cody Petterson, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district C

(Loxie Gant)

San Diego native Cody Petterson, 47, grew up attending district schools in La Jolla. Now he is a senior policy advisor who manages intergovernmental affairs for county Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer and has taught anthropology at UC San Diego.

He’s a parent with two children who attend Torrey Pines Elementary, where Petterson sits on the school’s site governance team.

In recent years Petterson has worked with school board members and teachers union officers in local progressive groups that provide workshops, training and other support to school board trustees on issues from restorative justice to helping schools respond to parents who oppose vaccinations. He has also done legislative advocacy on environment and education issues.

Petterson said his knowledge and experience in working with education and state and local government would make him a strong school board member.

Since the primary election in June, Petterson said he has talked with more parents, staff and community members and increasingly heard from them that improving the district’s communication with stakeholders and community relationships has to be a priority.

“This is not like, ‘Hey, you had 70 anti-mask protesters and you didn’t change your masking policy,’” Petterson said. “I’m talking about giving the community and parents and students and teachers a genuine sense that they are actively engaged in helping to guide the evolution of our school system.”

Petterson said the district can do that by making it easier for parents to attend its board and committee meetings, by offering free child care and food for attendees and subsidizing transportation.

In addition to improving communication by the district, Petterson listed as his top priorities: addressing pandemic achievement gaps and racial and income disparities, expanding and improving transitional kindergarten, and helping schools adapt to declining enrollment. He has also talked about advocating for more school funding from the state and making schools more environmentally sustainable.

Petterson said he would give the current school board a B minus, largely for what he was a need for better community engagement.

“It’s exercising its statutory function,” he said. “More is possible.”

Becca Williams

Becca Williams, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district C

Becca Williams, San Diego Unified School Board candidate for sub-district C

(Becca Williams)

Wisconsin native Becca Williams, 32, moved to San Diego in 2019 after living in Washington, DC and Texas. She lives in Pacific Beach and has two boys who are not yet old enough to attend San Diego Unified.

She works as a manager for the curriculum company Kingfisher Education and worked as a classroom teacher for one year in San Antonio. She also founded a network of three charter schools in Austin called Valor Public Schools, which is focused on liberal arts and classical education.

Williams said she would give the current school board an F.

She has been heavily critical of the district on a range of topics, including how the district kept schools closed for more than a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the district’s pursuit of a school bond measure while it has three already-existing bond measures , and the school board’s tendency to vote unanimously on agenda items with what she described as little to no critical discussion.

“This group of individuals is very closed in on themselves, in exclusion to a whole range of people who would want to participate in the schools,” Williams said.

Williams is one of several conservative school board candidates statewide who said they were motivated to run because of frustration with pandemic school closures, the enforcement of mask and COVID vaccine mandates, and the way some school districts like San Diego Unified are teaching ethnic studies and training teachers about equity.

Williams said she believes that San Diego Unified’s method of teaching ethnic studies is too political and divisive, views all of history through the lens of race, and “demonizes” and “dehumanizes” people based on their race.

Williams said she and other like-minded candidates have been unfairly attacked by critics because they are challenging the status quo.

“I believe there’s kind of a playbook that’s been put out by the (California Teachers Association) to make parents look radioactive … (and) anti-science, (that) they’re basically Neanderthals coming out for the school board,” Williams said .

Williams said her top priorities, if elected, would be opening up construction project bidding to non-unionized labor and reducing employees’ benefits packages to save money.

San Diego Unified has a set of rules that require building contractors for certain projects to follow union standards. Williams said she thinks opening up bidding to more non-unionized labor would reduce the district’s construction costs by increasing competition.

Williams said she would also want the school board to increase employee deductibles to reduce how much the district pays for health benefits. San Diego Unified offers multiple health insurance plans with zero deductibles.