Race to the wha?

The normally sleepy school board elections in the Sacramento City Unified School District have been enlivened by two developments. First is the recent introduction of district elections—which have made the contests more competitive, and more personal.

Then there are the efforts of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson—who’s been tied to some very controversial education issues in the past—to inject himself into the process.

Both factors seem to be at work in the race for District 1—covering Midtown, downtown, Curtis Park and much of Land Park—between Paige Powell and Ellyne Bell.

Powell has begun her campaign by attacking Bell as a “noneducator incumbent.” Bell is executive director of Wind Youth Services Center, here in north Sacramento. Powell is a Roseville High School teacher. Both are parents of SCUSD students. Powell is also married to Craig Powell, a local rabble-rouser who shows up in this column from time to time. But that’s another story.

In a press statement last week, Powell blasted the Sacramento City Teachers Association for endorsing incumbent Bell, saying, “It is amazing to me that the union would rather support the re-election of an incumbent noneducator rather than help elect at least one public-school teacher to a school board badly in need of educational expertise.”

Which kind of makes sense, until you think about why there aren’t any teachers on the board right now.

State law prohibits teachers from serving on the school board of the district that employs them. It might be a bit of a conflict of interest for those board members to vote on their own contracts and other policies affecting their day jobs.

It’s perfectly fine for teachers from other districts to run, of course. But like any other office, most candidates tend to get involved in their own communities.

Powell is also hammering Bell for being too critical of Sacramento Charter High School, formed when Johnson’s St. Hope organization took over his alma mater Sacramento High School in 2003 and turned it into a charter high school. Before she was a board member, Bell was one of the parents who unsuccessfully sued to stop the takeover.

With St. Hope in charge, test scores and college applications went up, but attendance plunged to about half of its original level. Coincidence? And at one point, St. Hope also wound up $1 million behind in rent and other fees it owed to the district. Or, as Powell puts it: “Sacramento High has, by any objective measure, been a success.”

Johnson hasn’t endorsed anybody yet. But it’s assumed he’ll back Powell. The question is, does anybody care?

“Maybe he ought to go out to D.C. and help Michelle instead,” quipped SCTA president Linda Tuttle. Johnson’s fiancée, Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been busy trying to end tenure and tie teachers’ jobs to test scores back east. She might also be out of a job this fall if D.C. mayor and Johnson-Rhee ally Adrian Fenty loses what’s shaping up to be a very tough re-election campaign.

The Sacramento union may not be crazy about Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, but they sure don’t want Rhee coming back here sniffing around for a job.

In D.C., the mayor has lots of power over schools. But as Tuttle notes, “The citizens of Sacramento duly elected a board of trustees to make decisions. Until they change the city charter and the district charter, we’ll continue to have a duly elected board.”

Whoa, Linda, don’t give them any ideas.