Martha Cox | Retired DMUSD Employee
Ashley Falls School. Photo Art Olson
The press coverage of the special meeting held in the Del Mar Union School District on Dec. 16, 2009 captured the snapshot of the day (the possible release of the superintendent), but there’s a much deeper story, as told in the frustration and emotions that were demonstrated during that meeting.
When the majority slate of Easton, McDowell and White took office in December 2006, the Del Mar school district was in a truly enviable position. The sale of the Shores property was nearing completion, which would allow the district to purchase a badly-needed district office, without using a cent of general fund monies. The education foundation was reflecting solid, consistent profits, which supported the popular enrichment programs for all students. Teachers, parents and staff worked in concert with the board and administration on carefully crafted long-range strategic goals, developed collaboratively over the previous seven years. Student achievement was soaring due to the curricular goals of that same plan, which included the implementation of the powerful Professional Learning Communities concept (known as PLC). PLC was designated as the next building block in the district’s strong academic foundation. Though teachers and principals fully understood the extra time that implementation of the PLC program would involve, its instructional promise to help every student achieve was compelling. The district knew that student achievement would continue to excel with this added focus – very hard to do when you are already in the achievement stratosphere.
So where are we three years later?
- The Shores property sold and, rather than starting the next day to begin the search for a home for the district office since the clock was then ticking, the majority slate of three did nothing. And, while the majority slate wants to connect the current state of the district to budget cutting in Sacramento, we can’t blame the governor for this.
- The sale of the Shores property included an exemption from the Naylor Act justified by the continuing growth of the district. And, yet, in the spring of 2009, the majority slate of three convened a 7/11 committee to close a school (a very telling action), not a surplus property committee, before it was even determined that surplus property existed. Where is the transparency and common sense in that? How did we go from growing to declining enrollment with the stroke of a pen? It makes little sense to anyone who has been part of the tremendous growth period and who understands the continuing long-range growth potential of the district. We can’t blame the governor for this either.
- The Del Mar Hills principal resigned in the summer of 2008. It had been suggested earlier by Board Member Lamborghini that it was time to have a dialogue with the Hills/Heights community as the declining projections for these two schools were quickly becoming reality. Rather than demonstrating leadership by taking advantage of that opportunity to begin a collaborative dialogue to assure the viability of both campuses, the majority slate of three totally squandered that opportunity. We can’t blame the governor for this either.
- In November 2006, the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation was poised to reach serious levels of corporate donations, which would greatly expand foundation funding. Though district board policy mandates that board members provide advocacy and leadership for district programs that benefit children, the majority slate of three chose to kill the goose laying the golden eggs instead, by attacking the integrity of the foundation and the generous volunteers serving on the foundation board. Parents were reluctant to make donations. Had this negative campaign by the majority slate of three not occurred, we might not be having this conversation at all. And, we can’t blame the governor for this either.
- The API scores have inched upward every year due to the implementation of PLC. Yet, the majority slate of three fired the superintendent who brought this powerful instructional concept to the district. As DMCTA President David Skinner alluded to in his September 2009 board report, the teachers have worked very, very hard to help our students succeed. This has been achieved in spite of the majority slate of three, not because of them.
How did we get here?
- With their meeting binders barely out of shrink wrap, following their $50,000 campaign/election in November 2006, Members Easton and White presented an 11-point equity proposal (http://www.dmusd.org/district/files/listFiles.aspx?subcategoryID=149), click on Equity Proposal. The proposal was drafted solely by them, lacked the usual collaboration of parents and staff, and most importantly, for a slate promising transparency, lacked adequate public disclosure. Without collaborative input, which would have enlightened them, the proposal was seriously flawed, both in its intent and logic, not to mention ignorance of district procedures or regulatory guidelines, but one thing was readily apparent. The majority slate of three wanted to shed the role of board member and assume administration of a district that had become a role model throughout the county and state. Make no mistake, in November 2006, the Del Mar school district was an exemplary district, extremely well-run and not in need of revamping.
- A few members of the school community recognized this proposal for what it was and spoke out. But, most hoped that it would all work out and silently watched and waited. This was just the beginning, however, and in a few short weeks after their election, the majority slate of three held their first superintendent disciplinary closed session meeting on March 7, 2007. In apattern repeated in 2009, it was the first of many such meetings, culminating, in February 2008, in the dismissal of the superintendent, an outstanding educator, well-respected throughout the county and state, who had guided the district through a period of tremendous growth and outstanding student achievement.
- The majority slate of three dismissed the collaborative long-range strategic plan, carved out over a seven-year period by hundreds of parents, staff, principals, administrators and board members. This strategic vision guided the district’s focus and supported budget prioritization – district priorities were clearly identified and that’s where funds were spent. Instead, the majority slate of three chose to reinvent the wheel, intent on dismantling the guiding principles of tremendous success that made Del Mar the respected district it became, all because they represented the vision and efforts of the previous board and superintendent. It’s been a painful process to observe, knowing that time, effort and funding to “start from square one” could have been better spent elsewhere.
- Throughout the 7/11 committee meetings, parents have been exposed to the lack of depth that currently exists in the district’s administration. And, I mean no disrespect to the current administrators valiantly attempting to right the ship. With the departure of well-loved principal, Gary Wilson, the community is lamenting the potential loss of other “key players” in the district. Sadly, the district has been losing key players since the majority slate of three took over. They just aren’t as well known to the community.
- The director of technology retired just after the opening of school in 2007, having designed and implemented the successful technology program that now exists, with school computer labs, classroom computer labs, technology teachers, technology training for all staff, establishment of the district website, and a great deal more. With his departure, was the vacancy filled quickly to allow for seamless transition? No. The newly-created personnel committee, chaired by Board Member White (assuming an administrative role is a violation of Board policy), reviewed his position for months and months. It took nearly a year to fill the vacancy!
- The student data technology manager resigned in February 2009. Among many other duties, he managed student enrollment data, which assisted the business department, the pupil services department, and the personnel and facilities departments. He would have been a key player in providing information for the 7/11 committee. His position was finally filled in September, months after his departure and the commencement of the 7/11 meetings.
- The director of facilities and personnel retired in June of 2009. He gave notice for months, allowing the district more than adequate time to hire a replacement. His position has not been filled to date, though some of his duties have been assigned to others, whose original responsibilities are already a full-time job. He also would have been a key player in assisting the 7/11 committee with demographic data.
- And, most recently, Ocean Air principal Gary Wilson resigned on November 30, 2009. Principal Gary Wilson was a true-blue supporter of the Del Mar district, his students and his three schools. Had he been considered for an administrative position, he would have brought long-term district knowledge to the table at a time when that experience is most sorely needed. The abrupt departure of Gary Wilson should send a message to the community that things are gravely amiss in the Del Mar district. The once-exemplary district that existed in 2006 has been dismantled piece by piece over the last three years, and who knows what other losses will occur before the 2010 is up?
These are but a few of the key players who have resigned or taken early retirement since the majority slate of three took over, including the loss of the superintendent from 2008. The void created with the loss of even ONE administrator, with advanced degrees in school administration and years of experience, working a minimum 50 hour week, would be strongly felt in the operations of the Del Mar district and cannot be minimized. The Del Mar district qualifies for 22 administrators due to its size, but there are only 14 on staff. The district has always operated with a lean staff. Every administrator has played a crucial role, with many assigned responsibilities. Knowledgeable, experienced execution of their tasks resulted in the success of the district. With the loss of so many key players, a huge gap of collective district knowledge and experience now exists. Assigning departing staff member duties to others only adds to the tremendous responsibilities of the remaining staff, rendering them to an impossible situation of inefficiency and ineffectiveness. That’s what the community has witnessed throughout the 7/11 meetings.
Given the realization of the mess their micro-management has created in the last three years, the majority slate of three orchestrated the election of first-year board member Comischell Rodriguez as president of the board at the organizational meeting on Wednesday, December 9, 2009. The president has traditionally served a two-year term (outgoing president Katherine White served only one year), usually followed by the election of the current clerk (Steven McDowell is serving his second year as clerk) to the presidency in the next rotation. Even the casual observer cannot miss the political maneuvering of this seemingly generous promotion. Is it that Members McDowell and White plan to run for office elsewhere? That’s the rumor that’s been circulating for months. Is it that Members Easton, McDowell and White know that the district is teetering on the brink and they want to be as far in the background as they can when this unfolds? I fear that President Rodriguez will be embroiled in one sour situation after another in very short order, as evidenced by the Dec. 16th special meeting, which appeared to be held solely to dismiss the new superintendent.
While there was understandable elation in the audience at President Rodriguez’s election (yes, some things are really quite transparent), the community needs to be reminded that she continues to remain only one vote out of five on the school board. If President Rodriguez is able to restore protocol and time-efficiency to the conduct of public meetings, that alone would be a significant contribution to the community. Meetings have become nitpicking marathons of minutiae and seemingly endless time-wasting discussion (and yes, this is also a violation of Board Bylaw 9200, which states that board members must come to meetings prepared, familiar with agenda materials, ready to listen to the public and then vote on agenda items), with the audience wandering and chatting and eating throughout the entire proceedings. The retreating board members vowed sincerely to support President Rodriguez throughout what will soon become a very challenging year for her. Surely, we can take them at their word, can’t we? But, let’s remember who got us to this point. When the majority slate of three fired the superintendent in February 2008, they indicated that they wanted to take the district in a new direction. Well, they surely did. We just didn’t know that direction was south.