Political Climate with Mark Simon: The county schools chief race is the one to watch

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate

The race for San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools between Gary Waddell and Nancy Magee is the only truly contested campaign on the local June 5 ballot, and it’s a fascinating contrast of credentials, experience and intangibles as to who is best suited for the county’s top schools job.

Waddell emphasizes he is the only one with practical experience as a school principal and counselor, which means he understands the administrative complexities of running a school and the educational and emotional needs of students.

Magee emphasizes she is the only one with in-class experience as a teacher, which means she understands the direct impact of policies and practices handed down by policymakers and the practical requirements of both students and teachers in the classroom.

They have distinctly contrasting priorities. For Magee it’s “safe and inclusive schools,” “high-quality early learning opportunities” and “career education in the 21st century.” For Waddell it’s “world-class schools for every child,” “educating the whole child,” and “quality, affordable preschools for every child.”

You can read much more about the candidates and their priorities here.

This is part of a terrific election website, votersedge.org, a joint project of MapLight and the League of Women Voters of California. It contains everything you would want to know about the election and it’s a must-read.

The Superintendent of Schools runs the county Office of Education, which is charged with implementing the state mandates on the county’s 23 school districts, including ensuring the budgets meet all state funding formula requirements and that each district carries out the state’s unending desire to meddle in local school curriculum priorities and standards.

The job requires an ability to work with the county’s school districts in a collaborative manner, given the autonomy each both enjoys and prizes, and to have the kind of state-level connections to influence the mandates that emanate from Sacramento.

Both Waddell and Magee are in the eight-member “cabinet” established by Superintendent Anne Campbell, who is stepping down after eight years in the job.

Waddell’s title is Deputy Superintendent, Instructional Services Division, according to the County Office of Education website. But he hastens to add that he is the only deputy and he is “second in command” to Campbell, carrying with it the assertion that he has the broadest grasp of the responsibilities of the job.

Magee’s title is Associate Superintendent, Student Services Division, according to the Office website. But she hastens to add that all the cabinet members directly report to Campbell, and she asserts that she has just as broad a grasp of the broad and visionary responsibilities of the job.

One stark contrast is the endorsements each claims on their campaign websites — www.garywaddell.org; www.vote4nancy.org. Besides their websites, Waddell and Magee recently were guests on The Game, the cable TV show I co-host with Kevin Mullin. You can see the two candidates for yourself here.

Waddell’s list is remarkable for a first-time candidate and the kind of list candidates dream about, including Congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, Assemblymen Kevin Mullin, Marc Berman and Phil Ting, state Senator Scott Wiener, four of the five San Mateo County Supervisors (Dave Pine apparently did not endorse) and a long list of local elected officials and school district trustees, including five of the seven current members of the County Board of Education, to whom the superintendent reports.

Magee’s list is shorter on high-profile political figures, but includes Supervisor Don Horsley, who endorsed both candidates; countywide officeholders Treasurer-Tax Collector Sandie Arnott, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, Coroner Robert Foucrault, Controller Juan Raigoza; former Supervisor Adrienne Tissier; and several mayors. Magee was endorsed by both local daily newspapers. And she also sports a substantial list of local officials, including school district trustees and educators.

As you would expect, both claim expertise in the other’s strongest suit.

If the job is all about impacting legislation and funding priorities, then the advantage would seem to go to Waddell, given the lineup of endorsements, suggesting that his current job has brought him in contact with the key leaders and policymakers. But Magee said she can step into that role easily. Both of them say the state needs to rework the tax code to better fund schools and, in particular, rethink Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 ballot measure that took property taxes out of the hands of local jurisdictions.

If the job is all about implementing programs at a school-district level, then the advantage would seem to go to Magee, whose job has been to develop countywide consensus on a number of priorities, the most prominent of which has been a countywide task force on safe schools that has worked to make sure the county’s 23 districts and 20 law enforcement agencies work together and communicate in a common language. But Waddell said his own experience has repeatedly called upon his abilities to coordinate policies and practices among the districts.

One of them will have to deal with an increasingly complex set of demands and challenges in the county schools.

We are raising a restless generation, made uneasy by the constant threat of gun violence, buffeted by a social interaction method that is undergoing continuous change, challenged by rapidly shifting economic demands, and whipsawed by widely varying academic demands and resources.

Waddell said he will work for a “system that is compassionate, flexible and considers the needs of kids who are not the norm.”

Magee said, “I’ve done the work to connect all these partners. I’m well-prepared to work on big, complex problems together in this county.” She wants the students of the county’s schools “to be able to see themselves in a positive way into the future.”

There is another distinctive element to the campaign, one that should not be overemphasized or ignored either: Both Waddell and Magee are openly gay.

Does it matter? It can, for very practical reasons.

In the past, Supervisors Tom Nolan and Rich Gordon, the first two openly gay countywide officeholders, became regional leaders in the LGBTQ community by virtue of their prominence in office. And they brought to the job priorities reflective of their own backgrounds, as does every elected official.

In this instance, the personal lives of Waddell and Magee provide them with an understanding of emerging issues on our school campuses, particularly bullying and the growing openness toward transgender youth.

Waddell said he has been openly gay for many years and says his personal background “is an asset” that allows him to “build an empathy and helps me understand the issues we need to work on.” He adds, “I’m not a single-issue guy.”

Magee “came out later in life,” after a marriage of 11 years and the birth of two sons. “I went through that experience, changing my identity to divorced, single woman who is gay.” In the end, she said, “It’s really not about being gay. It’s about being yourself.”

Contact Mark Simon at mark@climaterwc.com.

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.

The above photo is courtesy of the San Mateo County Office of Education. Gary Waddell is pictured on the left and Nancy Magee on the right.