Site icon Parent Security Online

How politics threw San Dieguito High School District into turmoil | #students | #parents


San Dieguito Union High School District, which prides itself on being the highest-performing district in San Diego County, has fallen into a state of chaos.

In the past two years, the district has cycled through four superintendents, lost two board members to resignations, saw attempts to remove two other board members and was sued in two high-profile lawsuits, including one by its own teachers union.

This story is for subscribers

We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.

Board meetings have lasted as long as 11 hours. The board has held 97 hours’ worth of meetings on 32 days this school year. San Diego Unified School District, by contrast, has held 64 hours’ worth of meetings on 22 days.

School board members, staff, parents, students and community members say the problems stem from a rift that formed years ago and trace their roots back to the debate over when to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community members say San Dieguito has become San Diego County’s most visible example of how the nation’s political divisions have taken over school district business since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The turmoil has caused several fights in San Dieguito over issues not directly related to student learning, including redistricting, how to fill an open spot on the school board, whether to build a student swimming pool, whether to defy the state’s now-expired mask mandate and, most recently, whether Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward should be fired for making controversial comments about Asian students.

James-Ward is currently on paid leave and has threatened to sue the district for retaliation if the board fires her.

“It’s all about politics and we need to remove that,” said Melisse Mossy, a former San Dieguito board trustee who resigned in April, in a March interview. “Whether it’s maps or any other issue, the focus is being blurred and a lot of energy and time are being dedicated to things that don’t benefit our kids. This is not sustainable.”

The conflict has destroyed decades-old friendships and fueled tumultuous school board meetings. At the latest meeting, as community members argued over whether to fire the superintendent, people in the audience shouted at each other, talked over each other and laughed at each other. One person slammed another person’s chair, another told members of the audience to “shut up,” and another pointed at a school board member and said he should be fired.

“The ship seems to be sinking,” said Ying Yang, a parent of an eighth-grader at Carmel Valley Middle School. “I read a lot of articles about school boards that are misfunctioning, and I realized that it’s happening in our own school district.”

How it began

San Dieguito High School District touts itself as one of the highest-performing districts in California. It is also one of the wealthiest.

The district, which enrolls about 12,700 middle and high school students, has a median family income of $135,000 and encompasses some of the richest communities in San Diego County, including Del Mar, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach. Eighty percent of the district’s students who took state tests in 2019 met or exceeded state standards in English, and 72 percent did so in math, numbers that dwarf the state averages of 51 percent for English and 40 percent for math.

“The board has been getting crazier and crazier,” said Landon Block, an 18-year-old senior at San Dieguito Academy who has written opinion articles about the district. “It feels like we’re creating sides over things that don’t need sides, and there’s talking points that don’t need talking points. We should all be working toward restoring the reputation that San Dieguito Union High School District has.”

People in San Dieguito disagree on where to place the blame for the ongoing problems.

The two sides, however, seem to agree on when the problems started: They can be traced back to the November 2020 election and COVID-19.

That election brought a new member to the board, Michael Allman, a longtime business executive who had unsuccessfully run for Congress as a Republican two years earlier.

With Allman, the school board switched from what had historically been a majority of teachers-union-backed candidates to a majority of non-union-backed members with politically conservative backgrounds.

On one side were people who wanted to reopen schools as soon as possible during the pandemic, arguing that the school closures were hurting children more than COVID. That group included Allman, Board President Maureen “Mo” Muir and their parent supporters. Former trustee Mossy also supported reopening schools earlier.

On the other side were people who wanted to wait longer before reopening schools, contending that moving too quickly would compromise safety. They included the San Dieguito teachers union, Trustee Katrina Young, Trustee Julie Bronstein who would later join the board in November, and their supporters.

Allman, Muir and others have blamed the teachers union for the district’s turmoil. The union sued the district over reopening, forced a special election to replace a trustee that the board had picked to fill a vacancy — a union-backed candidate, Bronstein, won that election — organized a recall attempt of Allman, and opposed the redistricting map that the board selected.

“What you are seeing right now is a nonstop union campaign to upend that (board) majority,” said Allison Stratton, co-founder of the pro-reopening Parent Association and one of the leading parents supporting Allman and Muir.

Parents accuse the union and those affiliated with it of harassing Allman and Muir, including hiring an investigator to follow Muir to check where she lives.

“Ask yourself who has been divisive. Ask yourself, would they have done any of this to the board members they endorsed or financially supported?” Muir said in an email. “If you see criticism, you have to look at who is doing the criticizing. No doubt, it is someone aligned with the union.”

San Dieguito teachers union President Duncan Brown said the union is not responsible for the chaos in the district.

“Before this school board majority took hold, the district was stable. We had the finest district in San Diego County,” Brown said. “We endorse candidates that have similar views and those similar views have provided stability to the district for over 20 years. When we don’t have candidates that view things similarly, we have the chaos that we’re now seeing.”

The union argued that board members were trying to reopen schools in an unsafe way. At one point Allman and Muir wanted to reopen schools for five-day-a-week in-person learning in the midst of the 2020 winter COVID-19 surge, before the state would have allowed schools to reopen and before vaccinations were widely available.

“Teachers needed more protection in the last two years than they ever had in their careers due to COVID, and the idea that the divisiveness is created because of the union is to me, the union was doing their job to keep the teachers safe,” said Mali Woods-Drake, founder of equity group Encinitas 4 Equality and one of the main community members supporting the union-backed trustees.

According to parents and community members who side with Young and Bronstein, it’s Allman, with the help of Muir, who has caused the chaos in the district by fostering contentious and prolonged debates.

Allman and Muir pushed for a redistricting map that prompted a lawsuit against the district and was later corrected by the county. They also pushed for the district to defy the state’s mask mandate days before it would expire. And some parents also accuse the two trustees of fueling backlash against James-Ward, the superintendent, who apologized multiple times for her comments about Asian students.

She made the comments at a board workshop in April. Responding to a question from Allman about why data had shown Asian students “do so well in school,” James-Ward responded that part of the reason was because wealthy families have been moving into San Dieguito from China. Her comments drew criticism from people who viewed them as reinforcing stereotypes.

Among his fellow trustees, Allman has attracted the most condemnation from parents and community members, not just for his policy views, but for an alleged pattern of harassment and hostile behavior toward district administrators and staff, other board members, students, parents and community members.

“He’s done nothing but create conflict and chaos since the first day he was on the board,” said Lori Meyer, a San Dieguito teacher who is retiring a year early because of frustration with the state of the district.

Some parents and community members are calling for Allman’s resignation, but he has refused to step down.

“There is a group of people in our school district who want me off the school board, and they will do just about anything in pursuit of that goal. That includes trying to damage my reputation, recall me, spread lies and mistruths, take up my time, create distractions, and a whole lot more,” Allman wrote in an email. “These are desperate tactics, and they will not succeed.”

James-Ward, Young and Bronstein declined to comment for this story.

The price of infighting

The instability is costing the district.

The district’s legal expenses have increased significantly in the last two years. Since 2021 the district has paid for more than $146,000 in legal costs for the school board alone, compared to 2020, when the board incurred no legal costs, according to district records requested by community members. Sometime after Allman joined the board, the board started having legal counsel present at every board meeting, a new practice that critics say has raised legal spending.

It cost the district another $20,000 to handle the union’s school reopening lawsuit.

All told, the district’s total legal expenses have risen to more than $686,200 in 2022 year-to-date as of early May, compared to $492,700 in 2021 and $322,100 in 2020.

On top of that, the district spent $187,000 holding a special election for a trustee after the teachers union successfully challenged the board’s appointment of a trustee to replace Kristin Gibson, who resigned in March of last year.

At the latest school board budget presentation last month, district officials projected a $4 million net decrease in the district’s fund balance for next year, out of a $171 million total budget.

“The spending that has had to go on because of this ridiculousness is hurting us because it should be money that’s spent on students and staff. Instead, it’s being spent on lawyers and recalls and boundaries,” said Roberta Blank, assistant to the principal at Carmel Valley Middle and a member of the classified union bargaining team.

Some parents have also voiced concern about how much the district is spending for multiple superintendents.

The district has spent $1.2 million paying for the salaries of three superintendents from 2019 to 2022, according to district records requested by community members. The vast majority of that went to former superintendent Robert Haley, who resigned in April last year after serving less than three years in the position amid a no-confidence vote from teachers and pressures from the reopening fight.

Beyond fiscal costs, the district’s infighting has also had emotional costs.

Perhaps the most visible example of this was the lone swing vote on the board: former trustee Mossy.

Mossy, a Republican, voted to reopen schools early and voted in favor of the redistricting map that the district was sued over. But she also voted against ending the district’s indoor mask mandate before the state allowed schools to do so.

Because she has voted on both sides, she has received hate from both sides of the district, she said. She has been threatened and called names. People insulted her intelligence and integrity, told her she doesn’t belong on a school board, and told her she should die — “things you might hear from a bully on a playground,” Mossy said.

Mossy said people she has known for decades stopped being friends with her because they were disappointed in how she voted on certain issues. Some of those former friends have told her they were up crying all night because of her vote on masks.

According to Mossy, the district is in turmoil because people on both sides have lost the ability to find common ground.

“I have really questioned if this is the best use of my time, volunteering 80 hours a week when people aren’t willing to come together and compromise. It’s a constant response of heat if people don’t get the vote they want on both sides,” Mossy said in a March interview, a month before she resigned. “Who in their right mind would want this job? This is not what I signed up for.”

With the loss of Mossy’s tie-breaking vote, the school board has split 2-2 on controversial issues. That’s why many community members expect the fate of James-Ward’s employment won’t be decided until the stalemate is broken.

Several say that’s not likely to happen until the next board election in November, when three spots will be up for election — Muir’s, Bronstein’s and the spot that Mossy vacated.





Source link

.  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .   .   .    .    .   .   .   .   .   .  .   .   .   .  .  .   .  .

Exit mobile version