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Feb 04th
Home Columns San Diego Happenings 'If a House Is on Fire, You've Got to Save the Kids First!'
'If a House Is on Fire, You've Got to Save the Kids First!' PDF Print E-mail
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Columns - San Diego Happenings
Wednesday, 02 January 2008 01:43
The News UpFront: (TOP STORY) as of Wednesday, January 2, 2008 

Mitz Sumilang Lee forsook the opportunity to serve on the San Diego City Council by choosing to remain as a trustee of the San Diego Unified School District. She claims to have accomplished the goals she set out in 2004. Now, at the start of her fourth year, she speaks metaphorically of a house on fire and the need "to save the kids first" as the major cause for seeking re-election for another four years.



'If a House Is on Fire, You've Got to Save the Kids First!' 



The author is a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and National Press Club of the Philippines-USA.


SAN DIEGO - Mitz Lee's face brightens every time she recalls the day she won her first public election in 2004 as a trustee of the San Diego Unified School District, the nation's seventh, and California's second, largest, serving more than 135,000 students.


With 166,000 votes to her name, more than then re-electionist Mayor Dick Murphy's who won and then quit, it was clearly a landslide. Not bad, in fact, quite a surprising feat for one just starting to chart a new political direction for herself.


Lee had defied the prognosis of the most sophisticated political pundits by scoring one of the highest wins for that office, specially because she's in the minority. Her ethnic background is Filipino, having been born 52 years ago in Quezon province, south of Manila.


But she won just the same, her popularity propelled by her persistent call for the removal of then Schools Superintendent Allan Bersin. The board eventually bought him out of his contract and Lee had her first taste of sweet victory.


Four years into her term, Lee had been torn between two passions; one, to make a huge difference in the lives of her young constituents, namely, the over 135,000 school children in the school district; and two, to serve in the relatively wider City of San Diego to which she had taken an interest.


She put an end to the agony by choosing the former over the conflicting advice of friends who genuinely felt she stood a good chance of capturing the diverse votes to represent San Diego's District 5 in the City Council. 

A parent wrote: "I would love to have Mitz (Lee) remain on the School Board. She brings a sense of truth and level-head thinking to our still crazy board".

"I was very uncomfortable in doing what I did . . . in hedging. Do I want to be a politician or a school trustee?" she asked, still pondering the issue like it was a life-or-death matter.  

Then letting out a hint of what she'd do, she explains in an interview the day after Christmas: "I never would like to engage in downtown politics anyway".


It sounded like an afterthought but it sealed her fate and brought her to the next. 


To Lee, "downtown politics" is rubbing elbows with various interest groups, including the moneyed, which essentially enjoy having a say-so in formulating and implementing policies. She is proud to have been elected without bowing to pressure from these people.


The incumbent in District 5 is termed out so the post is up for grabs. This district in the northern part of the city teems with Asian voters. In fact, the area is being eyed for re-districting, a process that would create another political enclave to reflect its predominantly Asian character.


Lee notes that only a handful cast their votes during elections. For example, of the 28,000 registered voters, a measly 5,000 went out and voted.


She figured that if she could get at least 10 percent of the registered voters, she would be a sure winner.


Consistent with that extrapolation, she had planned to walk the area to enjoin the residents - a significant part is Filipino - to vote. She said she was confident she could get them out to exercise their right of suffrage.


But then, the prospect of making a life-long impact in the upbringing of school children appeals much stronger than being a member of the city council which sometimes kowtows to the mayor.


Lee, who is a mother of two grown sons with husband Jeff Lee, a retired Navy commander, uses the metaphor of a house on fire that ultimately led her to abandon the city council seat.


"If a house is on fire, you've got to save the kids first," she explains.


That decision had ended her sleepless nights which, she said, had stretched over a whole month. "It's the thought of leaving the School Board, of leaving the children . . . " she says.


A parent from La Jolla praised her for making the choice, writing: "I do not know what brought you to this decision and I am sure that it was not easy. But I, for one, am delighted that the schools will be in your knowledgeable and capable and caring hands.  The city is so messed up that I cannot imagine anyone knowing where to start to straighten that out".


Another parent wrote: "I would love to have Mitz (Lee) remain on the School Board.  She brings a sense of truth and level head thinking to our still crazy board".


Still another parent said: "We also need her on the City Council. Life goes on and things never remain the same. I think the district is turning the corner for the better. It will take many years maybe decades to recover from the Bersin era, but it will recover".


The School Board is currently reviewing applications for superintendent to replace the resigned Carl Cohn with whom she had serious disagreements. His retirement resignation took effect on the last day of 2007.


Cohn had been hired right after the board bought out the contract of then Superintendent Allan Bersin. Lee's repeated calls to oust him when she gets to office in 2004 was believed mainly responsible for her election victory. 


While the search continues, the Board has named William Kowba, the acting chief administrative office and chief financial officer, interim superintendent starting January 1, 2008. He is a retired rear admiral who joined the district in August 2006.


Lee likes to compare the San Diego Unified School District with the City of San Diego to illustrate the importance of her decision to stay and forsake the council seat.


The district employs 24,000 employees (its website says it has more than 15,800 employees) -- from janitors, drivers and gardeners to teachers -- with over $2-billion budget, and overseeing 118 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, 35 charter schools and 15 alternative schools.


The city government, on the other hand, has only 10,000 employees.


School board members are, like the mayor and the city attorney, directly accountable to the people.


For her next term, assuming she wins reelection, Lee's goal is to downsize the board central's office. That would entail a possible cutback in personnel and sundry expenses.


Currently, she said she's looking for a superintendent with a vision., which she did not explain. As far as she's concerned, all the previous superintendents had been what she called "recycled superintendents".


Lee said the goals she had set out in 2004 "were accomplished", namely: the appointment of an educator (Carl Cohn) as superintendent, the imposition of fiscal restraint and accountability and increased parent involvement in the education of their children.


PHILIPPINE VILLAGE VOICE - Redefining Community News
BREAKING NEWS -  Exclusive
Volume 2, Issue No. 1 / News Without Fear or Favor /

. . . . . A community service of San Diego's Philippine Village Voice ( or at 619.265.0611) for the information and better understanding of the public. . . . . .


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Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 January 2008 04:25

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If a man will begin with certainties,he shall end with doubts;but if he will be content to begin with doubts,he shall end in certainties.-- Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626