With the future of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin and his once-vaunted blueprint for educational reform hanging in the balance, the race to replace outgoing school-board member Sue Braun — who caused a furor last year with her e-mailed threat to shoot fellow board members Fran Zimmerman and John deBeck — was expected to be a donnybrook. Five candidates signed up for the open seat. One is Braun's favorite, attorney Katherine Nakamura. Another, former Navy officer Jeff Lee, is a Bersin critic. Both had long ago announced their intention to seek the office and had begun building bases in the district, which extends from Scripps Ranch and Mira Mesa to Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, and the College Area.
To most outside observers, the contest was shaping up as the traditional battle between those, such as Braun, who support Bersin, the controversial ex-U.S. Attorney who has repeatedly clashed with the teachers and their voluble leader Marc Knapp, and those looking for a candidate who would cast a third vote with boardmembers Zimmerman and presumably deBeck to end Bersin's career in education.
But that scenario suddenly changed with the last-minute entry into the race of Johnnie Perkins, a trash-company lobbyist, veteran Republican operative, and ex-aide to city councilman Byron Wear. Though he has no children of his own (his wife is pregnant with their first child) and no experience in school-board politics, Perkins, who jumped into the fray just weeks before the December filing deadline, has emerged as the candidate to beat, rapidly collecting the endorsements of the San Diego Labor Council and the San Diego Education Association, the union representing 8300 of the district's teachers and other employees. The early endorsements have allowed Perkins to list them on his ballot statement, giving him what local political experts say is a substantial leg up in the contest.
The collective embrace of Perkins gained even more momentum last week when Perkins announced that the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, consistently at odds with most of the teachers' union agenda, also endorsed him, and he filed campaign-finance disclosure forms revealing a host of sizable donations from members of the downtown establishment, which has favored Bersin. They include real estate mogul Malin Burnham and wife Roberta; nursing-home owner and one-time city council candidate Karen McElliott; and the William D. Lynch Company of Rancho Santa Fe, whose founder, Bill Lynch, has been one of Bersin's biggest supporters and whose foundation has contracted with the district to provide various educational services.
The abrupt appearance of educational neophyte Perkins, along with the emergence of the politically strange bedfellows who are backing his campaign, is causing consternation and confusion among the teachers' union rank and file. Some see a sophisticated plot by Bersin and his wealthy political backers -- who poured more than $750,000 into the attempt to defeat Zimmerman -- to put another rubber stamp on the board, cementing his position for years to come. Some even claim that teachers' union president Marc Knapp is in on the plot and will be rewarded with a high-paying executive spot at the school district when he leaves his position as head of the union later this year.
Others speculate that city councilman Byron Wear, who is prevented by term limits from running for reelection and is seeking a lucrative job on the new regional airport board, is building his own San Diego version of Tammany Hall by engineering the election of his trusted former aide to the school board, which oversees a multibillion-dollar budget and each year awards millions of dollars' worth of contracts for everything from pencils to high school construction. The board also controls millions of dollars' worth of real estate, which some say is highly coveted by an array of would-be developers, all waiting to pounce once the friendly four-to-one board majority legally required to market the land is elected.
Other key constituencies, like big labor, according to this theory, are being bought off by promises of contracts, choice jobs, and favorable treatment by local government. Perkins's role as lobbyist for San Diego Landfill Systems, a subsidiary of giant Allied Waste Industries, is fueling the suspicions. Others simply credit the political skills of the well-connected Perkins, who reportedly spent months researching the standoff between Bersin and his critics.
Perkins, a 39-year-old native of the city of Cypress in Orange County, says he bears no hidden agenda and denies he has entered into secret deals of any kind with Bersin, Wear, the teachers' union, the chamber of commerce, or anyone else.
"I told both sides clearly that some days you're going to be pleased with me and some days you aren't, but at the end of the day you're going to look back and say, 'He did what was best for the children,' " he said in an interview last week.
Perkins also denies that Wear is a major behind-the-scenes force in the Perkins campaign juggernaut. "That's not true. In fact, Byron and I have had plenty of disagreements over a number of policy issues, even when I worked for him. But I haven't worked for Byron in four years. I've had two other jobs since Byron, and so I talk to him every now and then, but I'm certainly not involved in his political operation, and I'm not involved in his policy operation at all, either.
"He called me when he heard I was interested in the [school board] race, and said, 'Hey, if you consider running, I think that would be great; I would support you.' But I did not call him and seek his advice or ask for his endorsement or anything like that. He had heard, and he had called and said, 'I heard you were thinking about running,' he thought that would be great."
Perkins adds that he is against selling off school-district property to well-connected developers in the way that the San Diego City Council has over the past decade sold city-owned real estate in order to raise money to fund operating costs. "I'm not inclined to support that, and the reason is our school district is going to continue to grow with the amount of population growth in San Diego, and I think it would be irresponsible of any member of the school board to start discussing selling off assets. That's, in my opinion, what got the City of San Diego in so much trouble. They took all those assets they had, and they started selling assets every year to balance their budget."
His critics claim that, for all his mastery of educational jargon, Perkins is an empty suit who got a quick course in how to win a school-board race by saying the right buzzwords to the right constituencies, but once elected would be at the mercy of his handlers in labor and the downtown establishment. "Mr. Perkins lacks depth in his responses to questions regarding the Blueprint," argues Frank Lucero, a math teacher who is backing Jeff Lee. "His responses indicate that he is an educational neophyte. He uses the same response to many questions: 'The teachers are the experts,' 'parents are the foundation,' 'fundamentals come first,' 'reading, writing, math,' 'sit down with the stakeholders at local schools to empower them,' 'The Blueprint is a top-down management approach.' In other words, there is no depth to his responses. I feel like yelling out, 'Tell us something we don't already know!' "
Perkins counters that his position as a newcomer to education politics is actually a plus and says he would base his service on the school board around his experience in the public schools of Cypress. "I'm a public-school-system product myself. Graduated from UCLA and went through the public schools myself, and I want to make sure that my child and the children in the community have the same kind of opportunities I had when I was in public school. I was held back when I was in first grade, and if not for the tremendous teachers I had then, I don't think I would have been able to get to the next level, because my folks moved from one city to another late in the school year.
"And I went to Cypress Junior College before I went to UCLA, and I didn't know how to study out of high school, and I had tremendous professors at junior college that really focused me on studying, which enabled me to be successful when I got to UCLA. So I value and respect our teachers for the tremendous and awesome responsibility they have in educating our children, and I just want to make sure that the kind of privilege I had going through public school...that the children in San Diego have that same opportunity."
Lucero and others who favor ousting Bersin are also suspicious of the carefully studied position Perkins has laid out regarding the future of the superintendent. In his videotaped interview with the teachers' union, he studiously avoided calling outright for Bersin to go, instead suggesting he would convene a meeting of teachers, ask for their opinions, and then present Bersin with a list of unspecified policy changes. "If they aren't addressed in a certain amount of time, then I'm willing to reevaluate the administration." Counters Lucero: "His worst answers regard questions about his support for Alan Bersin. Perkins says that he could work with Bersin and that Bersin could be changed. He panders to his target audience and blows with the political wind.
"I told the SDEA, you did not do your homework," Lucero concludes. "If they had gone into any in-depth process, he would never have been endorsed." Not so, argues teachers' union president Marc Knapp, who voices confidence in Perkins and his ability to deliver for his members. "Perkins says, 'I'm going to give you [Bersin] a chance to change, but if you don't, you're gone.' That is, if they have the votes to do it. Frankly, that's the approach I would take, even having been across the table from the superintendent all the time. If I was running a campaign, I would never run on saying I'm going to throw the superintendent out. What I would say was that I was expecting change; if it doesn't happen, this leadership is going to change."
Perkins adds that any policy changes to be made by the school board, including the potential firing of Bersin, will require time for him to evaluate once he gets elected. "I'd like to have a time period -- and I don't know what it is, because I need to think through more about those issues and how complicated they would be to change quickly -- but let's say we give him six months to a year; let's say just hypothetically. If those issues aren't changed within that time period that I think is reasonable, then, yes, I would very seriously consider making a change in the superintendent's office."
Both Perkins and Knapp deny the persistent story that the teachers' union president made any secret deals to engineer the endorsement of Perkins. "At least one of the other candidates is putting out all of this spurious crap about SDEA sold out or I sold out or Alan Bersin is paying me off," Knapp says. "My favorite is the part where my contract with SDEA was supposed to run out on the 31st of December, and then on January 1st Alan Bersin was going to give me a high-powered job, maybe even Tony Alvarado's. I got to tell you, out of all the people in the world Alan Bersin would do anything for, I'm last."
The argument within the union over its endorsement of Perkins has become so heated that last week Knapp posted an article on the union's website, headlined "Setting the Record Straight: Rumors Fly in the Face of Facts," vehemently denying he had cut a deal with Bersin. "The President was only one of the approximately 150 votes cast, and had no veto power. We are recommending to our members one of the best pair of pro children/educator candidates SDEA has ever supported," Knapp wrote. "Misguided souls -- It never ceases to amaze me how uninformed and stupid some people can be, so I probably need to clear up a few inaccuracies put out by these misguided souls.
"I am a dues-paying member elected by you to serve and represent the policies and positions of the Association in all dealings with the District and other agencies through July 31, 2002. This spring you will elect a new President to represent you.
"Alan Bersin can't offer to hire me to a District position; I am already a District employee. You can find me listed in the staff directory under Labor Relations as regular teacher at cost center #520. My term as President ends this school year, and I will be going through the regular Post and Bid process just like many of you. I am not guaranteed a position. I have not been offered any position by the Superintendent or anyone else.
"We've seen these kinds of slanderous tactics before; most recently during the Fran Zimmerman School Board race. I guess 'those misinformed people' never ever get it. They believe they will divide and defeat us. Instead of spreading rumors and defaming our leadership and our candidates, 'those people' ought to call me with their rumors... I need a good laugh."
Over at the San Diego- Imperial Counties Labor Council, the umbrella group for 110 AFL-CIO locals in the region, political director Donald Cohen says there has been little or no controversy over the Perkins endorsement, largely because the council is convinced that he would vote its way on an array of bread-and-butter issues of special interest to its members. (The labor council is not affiliated with the teachers' union.)
"He passed the test. He seems good on our issues and is a viable candidate and seems like he would be independent of the superintendent, independent of the chamber, independent of everybody. We want to ramp this down by having people on the board who aren't in one camp or the other but who actually have an opportunity to vote with the kids."
Cohen would not make public the questionnaire used to evaluate the school-board candidates, but he said the labor council was confident that Perkins would vote with labor on a number of crucial issues, which largely involve unionizing the district's contractors and higher wages for its workers, or else he wouldn't have received the council's endorsement.
"We want construction, definitely. A lot of schools are being built. We want to make sure they're done -- we helped the school district to put together a labor-compliance program at the school district. Even though they have to pay prevailing wage, a lot of them [school contractors] were cheating. It's the law, but a lot of them don't do it.
"We'd like for [schools] to be built with project-labor agreements to actually get a well-built school. We'd like all public agencies, including school districts, to look at living-wage policies to make sure that subcontracting isn't used to downsize wages and benefits for workers. Living-wage policies usually apply to the contractors of school districts.
"We don't want people who support vouchers. We don't oppose charter schools, but we want to make sure there are collective-bargaining rights within charter schools. That's important, it's a core union value. Those kinds of things."
In an interview, Perkins confirmed he supported prevailing wage laws and voiced qualified opposition to vouchers. "I am not in favor of vouchers, and the reason is, I am a product of the public school system, and I just look at what it did for me, and I think I turned out pretty good. So, vouchers are not really something -- at least at this time -- that I'd be willing to support. Because there are still some things we can do at the public school level to get that improvement, to get the confidence of the teachers and parents back."
On the question of unionization of charter schools, Perkins said he had no position. "I just haven't given that much thought, so I don't know. I haven't really thought through that one at all."
As for Alan Bersin's future, so heatedly debated by the school teachers, Cohen says that, in the long-running battle for control of educational policy, the ball is ultimately in the court of the school board, not the superintendent.
"I don't agree that he is the issue. He is an issue. He has done things that have been the wrong approach, the wrong method. And then there are some things educationally that he's probably right on and probably wrong on, when it comes to curriculum and this and that. But he has certainly pushed too damn hard. I mean, he's made some mistakes and further polarized the school district. The school board -- the elected representatives -- need to be in control. He needs to work for a school board. They don't need to work for him.
"That's the difference. He's a smart guy, right? But whether he can work for somebody is another question. But that's what has to happen here. The school board needs to be in control of the policies of the schools, and when the staff comes forward with a good idea, they need to say yea, and when they come forward with a bad idea, they need to say nay. That's the difference, and that's what we believe is important."
Yet, despite the studied and unanimous assurance from labor leaders that Perkins is their man, some union members continue to fire salvos from within. Much of the dissent involves the haste in which critics say the teachers' union took up the endorsement. Knapp confirms that Perkins did not fill out a questionnaire prior to his pre-endorsement interview, as required of the other candidates, but says he did so afterward. "Johnnie had his [questionnaire], but he hadn't turned it in before the interview, and that was part of what we were depending on afterwards, looking at the [videotaped] interview to check and make sure that the answers squared with it, before it went to the board of directors."
But Knapp acknowledged that while his board does its best to screen potential candidates, its due diligence is limited by time and resources.
"We don't go back and check and see if they graduated from UCLA or Harvard or whatever," says Knapp. "We can't do that kind of an extensive background check; we never have on any of our folks, and the assumption is that people are coming in and telling you the truth," says Knapp. "But we do go back and say, 'What kind of a person is this? Do they stand up for their word? Are they way left, are they way right? Are they the kind of person who is looking for a solution or confrontation?' That kind of thing.
"That's the kind of check that we do. We don't do financial checks. I mean, obviously, places like Notre Dame don't even do that when they hire a football coach! That's pretty tough to do. We don't know that. Never have. I don't foresee that that would happen. You can never be 100 percent sure. But I will tell you I have never been more confident in a choice that we made than I am now.
"But they put that stuff out, and they're saying Perkins is a stealth candidate and he's got all these skeletons. Well, you know what? I've done this a lot of times, and the people who sat on that committee have done it a lot, and certainly our board members and a lot of people on that council have years and years of experience in endorsing people. And aside from this little campaign of misinformation and stuff, people have been very impressed with Perkins."
As it happens, though, Perkins has encountered personal and financial difficulties in the past, according to records filed in San Diego Superior Court as part of a 1999 divorce action filed by Perkins against his first wife, Monica Fascher, whom he met, according to the records, 14 years ago while she was an intern in the office of then-governor George Deukmejian. In the documents, Fascher accuses Perkins of conducting an extramarital affair and later lying about their expenses and his income on a court document filed under penalty of perjury, including income he allegedly earned moonlighting as a referee for youth sports teams in San Diego County. Fascher also alleged that Perkins attempted to sell a Sacramento house the couple owned without telling her and failed to pay community debts, causing at least one lawsuit to be filed against the couple for bad debts.
In an interview last week, Perkins accused his ex-wife of lying and denied he had conducted the alleged affair, saying, "That's absolutely not true." He also said all of the financial allegations made by his ex-wife, including failure to pay bills, were not based on fact. "Those were all paid off by me. What I did, I took responsibility for all of those and paid everyone of them off." Asked why Fascher would have made up the allegations, he replied, "I can't speak for her."
Contacted at her Los Angeles law office, Fascher declined comment, except to stand by the allegations on file in her divorce case. In one document, dated February 4, 2000, Fascher outlines details of her often-rocky life with Perkins.
"Johnnie Lee Perkins, Jr., and I were married on June 29, 1991, and separated on February 27, 1998, when I moved out of the family residence. We were married for six years and eight months. In 1991, when we were first married, I served in the administration of Governor Pete Wilson in Sacramento, California. In June 1994, we agreed jointly that I would attend law school, and in August 1994, I commenced my studies at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. While in law school I worked as a tutor for students on academic probation and as a law clerk, in the same firm where I am currently employed, Yoka & Smith in Los Angeles.
"Since graduation from law school in May of 1997, I have been diligently attempting to pass the California Bar Exam, while continuing to work in order to pay community debts acquired during this marriage and as much of my living expenses as possible. I have not yet passed the bar.
"I believe I have not yet passed the Bar because of the upheaval in my personal life. Specifically, I learned that Mr. Perkins was having an extramarital affair in 1997-'98, thus causing me to move out of our residence. Since this date of separation, he has continually failed to pay community debts. He has forced us into a foreclosure, he is now threatening bankruptcy, and he continues to engage in harassing tactics. We have also now been sued by a creditor that he agreed to pay.
"I first met Mr. Perkins in 1988 while working as an intern for Governor George Deukmejian. In 1989, upon graduation from U.C. Davis, I accepted a full-time job in the Deukmejian administration, where I served until 1990. In 1990, Governor Pete Wilson was elected, and I served in his administration until beginning my legal studies in 1994. I have never been unemployed or terminated from any job. The only period that I have not worked was during the first year of law school.
"Mr. Perkins states, 'She has also refused to cooperate in payment of a large portion of our community bills.' This is patently false. Since the date of separation, February 27, 1998, I have paid the following bills on time each month: Fleet Visa, Providian MasterCard, Bank of America Visa, GM Visa, Nordstrom, and Graduate Student Loans.
"From March 1998- January 1999, I paid the GoldenOne Visa bill on time every month. In February 1999, my student loans became due, and I could no longer afford to make the payments. Mr. Perkins agreed to pay the GoldenOne bill, and the bill was transferred to his address. He failed to make one single payment on time, and as such GoldenOne has now filed a lawsuit against us for payment of this bill.
"Additionally, Mr. Perkins has failed to make on-time payments to Fleet Visa, causing the creditor to assess $29-per-month late charges and to raise the interest rate on this card.
"Furthermore, Mr. Perkins unilaterally listed and attempted to sell jointly titled real property in Elk Grove, California, and unilaterally decided to stop making mortgage payments in June 1999, thus causing the institution of foreclosure proceedings. Initially he represented that he had money to close escrow.
"Then Mr. Perkins alleged that he did not have the money to close escrow and asks that I participate in a short sale in order to sell this property. I agreed to seek a short sale with the bank and accepted the short-sale terms on three separate occasions. Now he has refused to participate in all three short sales, thus causing a foreclosure date of February 9, 2000, to be set. Another harassing technique by Mr. Perkins.
"Mr. Perkins's Income and Expense Declaration, filed with the court in September 1999, is false because he conceals assets and fails to include all monies earned. He included payment information that he was no longer making at the time of filing the declaration, namely the PNC mortgage payment of $1800 per month. This has not been paid since June 1999, yet Mr. Perkins included this expense in his declaration.
"Mr. Perkins also fails to include monies earned as a sports referee in San Diego County, and he did not disclose the existence of a 401(k) account. However, he claims I have not been financially responsible. Given Mr. Perkins's conduct, his current request is insulting.
"Since the date of separation, Mr. Perkins has continually failed to pay community debts, failed to pay spousal support on time, and he is engaging in harassing tactics."
In a document filed with the court September 17, 1999, Fascher alleged that Perkins had failed to make home-loan payments.
"I have learned only in the last month from our mortgage lender that in the last 18 months Johnnie has only made nine payments to PNC Mortgage, seven of which were late/delinquent payments. While Mr. Perkins alleges that he was unable to make the March 1998 mortgage payment, this in no way explains why he failed to make the six mortgage payments, from April 1998-September 1998. He also did not make payments for July, August, and September of this year. He never advised me that he failed to make the payments.
"As previously stated in my initial declaration, we had agreed that I would not seek spousal support while Johnnie paid the mortgage until we could sell our home. Now I learn that he has failed to make the payments he agreed to make.
"Clearly, Mr. Perkins has consistently failed to meet the mortgage obligations, yet he has an average monthly income of $7208.43.
"The principal balance on the mortgage increased from $176,151.84, as of February 17, 1998, to $185,158.89 in November 1998, because of Mr. Perkins's failure to make the monthly mortgage payments. He has unilaterally increased the community debt on the mortgage by approximately $10,000."
Fascher also accused her husband of lying about how much money she had earned working for Governor Pete Wilson. "Mr. Perkins's declaration is false. I never made $60,000 per year while serving in the Wilson administration. As a Communications Specialist, I was paid an annual salary of $42,000."
Fascher's divorce-case filings portray a young, ambitious political couple, constantly traveling to various destinations linked to their careers with the Republican Party.
"Our two-week trip to Tahiti was paid jointly by Mr. Perkins's parents and by Mr. Perkins and myself. We took at least nine domestic trips while we were married. In November 1992, we traveled to Rochester, New York, for Thanksgiving. In July 1992, we traveled to Houston, Texas, to attend the Republican National Convention. In February 1993, we traveled to Orlando, Florida, to spend a week at Disneyworld, my 1992 Christmas present from Mr. Perkins. In February 1993, we traveled to Rochester, New York, for my grandfather's funeral. In May 1993, we traveled to Reston, Virginia, for my sister's wedding. In November 1993, we traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for Thanksgiving. In December 1994 we traveled to Detroit, Michigan, for Christmas. In May 1994, we traveled to Washington, D.C., for Mr. Perkins to attend a George Bush for President Seminar and to visit relatives. In June 1994, we traveled to Rochester, New York, for my family reunion. We also traveled regularly on the weekends to Sea Ranch, CA; Napa, CA; and Santa Clara, CA. Additionally, we traveled to Ensenada, Mexico, in November 1993 for a week, in an attempt to reconcile our marriage.
"There is no debt to Mr. Perkins's parents for our living expenses while we were married. Twice, Johnnie's parents contributed $2000 towards our living expenses, once in December 1996 and again in August 1996. These were gifts. There was never any agreement or arrangement for us to pay back any of this money. On the other hand, the student loans, which we borrowed for our living expenses, were incurred with the agreement that we would repay those loans with community funds since the money was used for our community living expenses.
"Mr. Perkins's Income and Expense Declaration does not include earnings that he makes as a sports referee for high school games and for Pop Warner games in San Diego County.
"Mr. Perkins continues to have the same standard of living we maintained during our marriage -- yet he has unilaterally increased the community debt -- without making any spousal support payments to me and without making the mortgage payments as he promised.
"It is only fair that I be awarded spousal support at this time, since I am unable to meet my financial obligations on my own."
The case was finally resolved in the summer of 2000 with a marital-settlement agreement dated June 20, in which the couple agree that Perkins is to pay Fascher $625 a month through February 2004 for "support and maintenance."
Says Perkins today, "It was difficult. It's not something that you hope to ever go through. Certainly not something I ever thought I would go through. But you look at things, and sometimes those things happen. I never started out thinking I'd ever be married more than one time. My parents had been married more than 35 years; it's kind of the model you look at."