When Cindy Marten became the superintendent of San Diego Unified, she had a harsh take on the state of the school system.

She recognized that the district could not say what a quality school was and yet was committed to providing one in each neighborhood. The district desperately needed more money, but had no way to measure what the return on new investments would be.

“This will be the central tension of Marten’s term. She does not have a very positive evaluation of the district as it is. But she refuses to blame anyone for its current state,” I wrote when she started in summer 2013.

Four years later, it absolutely has been the central tension of her term. Marten is overwhelmed with troubles and yet she is unwilling to fully, publicly confront any of them.

Voice of San Diego has uncovered many of these problems. But even I get lost in the daily drumbeat. So I sat down to write out the list of challenges and it left me dismayed.

We did see a drastic increase in funding for the district, just as Marten hoped when she started. Actually, nobody could have reasonably imagined a faster, sharper infusion of cash.  And that came even though the district is educating fewer students than it had in 2013.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Four years later, Marten has fewer students to educate and yet somehow has more employees than she did when she took over. Yet class sizes haven’t gone down.

No, district leaders cannot say what the money has achieved.

We can’t track funds intended for poorer schools. Those poorer schools are, in fact, now bearing the worst of the layoffs from a deficit that somehow opened up despite the new funding.

The central achievement Marten and district trustees point to — the graduation rate — is a metric stained by what it took to achieve. Students are cheating on online credit-recovery courses. The district pushed struggling students off to charter schools, protecting the graduation rate from their struggles.

School facilities somehow fell into worse disrepair despite billions of dollars in taxes approved by voters precisely for construction and major repair needs. A dog detected lead in water in a school whose decrepit plumbing the district had used over and over again as a reason to support new taxes. The new taxes came but the district never fixed the plumbing.

Money did go to a new athletic field though. I’m not even going to get into what a mess those fields have been.

Stable leadership is a fantasy for some of the most troubled high schools. Only after an uprising at Lincoln High School did the district finally stop an endless search for a new principal. That school, which Marten highlighted as the litmus test of her leadership, remains beleaguered and hemorrhaging students — its pristine facilities serving far fewer than it could.

One of the district’s top managers told Lincoln-area parents that their kids were entering high school reading at a second-grade level. It infuriated them. If it was a false smear, it was unacceptable condescension. If it was true, it should have triggered a declaration of emergency.

There was no declaration of emergency.

Marten pushed out the charismatic principal of Hoover High in the middle of the year. We don’t know why.

Now the district is facing a hot fire in Scripps Ranch after hundreds of students learned they have to retake Advanced Placement tests because of an error. The district instinctually denied it had done anything wrong or that anyone had cheated (someone apparently had).

Not all of these are Marten’s fault. It certainly seems easier to negotiate with North Korea than to reform a large urban school district.

But the district, under Marten, has been obsessed not with fixing its problems but with denying they exist. Marten’s staff has been allergic to any acknowledgement of vulnerability. Nothing is ever wrong. Nothing is ever bad. The news is fake.

An inconvenient journalist was indirectly warned by the district’s communications chief that her dead body might wash up on shore. No matter, we were assured, it was just a joke.

The district illegally hid documents. It falls woefully behind on public records requests. Yet while many of those requests languished, last month, trustees and the media were barely able to prevent management from scrubbing all emails more than six months old without so much as a public hearing. Parents can’t get answers. Neither can trustees.

You know things are bad on transparency when Kevin Beiser, a school board member, reaches out to us to express his frustration. He once blocked me on Twitter.

These are just the front lines of obstruction. The bigger issue is the district’s cultural instinct to deny problems and reassure parents. In September, Marten comforted worried parents in the Lincoln High School area that it was going to be a great year for the school.

It was not.

That instinct — to calm and reassure your constituents is common in executives. It came out when Marten wanted to assure parents of students at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, who were on edge two years ago, when the school’s popular principal did not show up for graduation and the son of a school board member bragged he had gotten her fired.

No, no, Marten assured those parents. The principal had merely taken a new, special job with the district.

That turned out not to be true. And the trustee who pushed the principal out ended up resigning in disgrace.

This is what happens constantly with all these stories. When you deny problems and focus on reassuring people that things are going great, the media cycle becomes a constant spiral of proving you wrong. You deny the public the opportunity to have a conversation about what’s going on and you don’t demonstrate the confidence that, as a community, we’re strong enough to handle it.

Acknowledging a problem is not a sign of weakness — it’s quite the opposite. Smearing critics, hiding documents, clamming up, shutting out trustees and just patting parents on the head with assurances that it will all be fine does not inspire trust.

And yet that is still the path Marten is still taking.

    This article relates to: Commentary, Education, Must Reads, School Leadership

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Al Allen
    Al Allen

    State taxpayers have got to quit falling for the educational bureaucracy's constant fake siren song of "We need more and more and more of your money to do our jobs. Trust us and let us increase your taxes to provide those billions of dollars. Accountability? We don't need no stinking accountability." 

    I have and never will vote for any ballot measure to provide more money for education. There is more than enough money. Problem is there is no professional management, way too much deadwood overhead, on and on.

    Education has become a business like a leech on taxpayers. Time to cut it off, let it die until corrective action is made. 

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    And now--Prop Z money is being used to remodel the football, baseball and softball fields at Patrick Henry High School.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    The district can't even fix small problems--like replacing the flag pole in front of Foster Elementary.  It's been gone since February.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    “Other than that, Mrs. LIncoln, how did you like the play? ”  Now that you’ve fired Cindy Marten, are you negotiating with Bill Kowba for a return stint?

    Like you, I’m disappointed in Marten’s performance, but you have to remember who appointed her and what she has to please, possibly the lousiest school board in California.

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    Keep up the good work VOSD! Education is by far the biggest factor in reducing inequality. We have to improve by orders of magnitude.

    Linda Smith
    Linda Smith subscriber

    Let's be clear about a couple of things in the AP Testing debacle. Not one of the students whose test scores were invalidated is accused of cheating. While an "irregularity" led to the College Board checking the seating chart, this mess falls squarely on the shoulders of the administration and district. Had the admin seated the students correctly, any self-reported "irregularity" would have gone unnoticed. Also, this was no "error." The school administration KNEW they were not following the College Board regulations. Now, hundreds of students have to pay for the negligence (not mistake) of adults. 

    Al Allen
    Al Allen

    @Linda Smith  Would it be fair to say the incompetent people who willfully failed to set up the testing area according to known standards should be financially liable not only for reimbursing the student's testing costs and for all costs incurred through testing prep classes?

    No way should any student, their family, lose a dime due to the willful, utter incompetence of those responsible.

    Personally I would love to see a class action lawsuit against them to also cover the costs of classes the students will now have to take thanks to bureaucratic bungling.

    Fair is fair.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Martin has seemed to me to lack requisite competence for the job from the start, but it's important to remember that she is the person selected by the board to lead the district. They can presumably replace her at will. Thus the responsibility here lies with the board. 

    As for the board, one of the problems we face as a community is the manner in which the school board is elected. The elections tend to be down ballot along with judges that most voters haven't heard of and a number of other functionaries, but the board holds great power over tax dollars and children's lives. Perhaps the process by which we select those who control our schools is not working.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @Chris Brewster When the School members ran for election, most of them stressed they were educators and union members. This should never be a strong pint to be elected. When this is you strong point you have a main interest in giving to you union brother/sisters and making sure the status quo continued. Learn from this voters.

    KIm Carpender
    KIm Carpender subscriber

    With the budget a mess and employees going up while class size stays high, maybe it is time to figure out who all those employees are and what they are doing.  My guess, based on school board minutes and experience working for SDUSD, is that they are all one kind of assistant or another to Martin.  The district is crawling with assistant superintendents and paid consultants.  And even with help she is unable to do her job.  It looks like time for an audit of the books and new leadership.

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    Congratulations Mr. Lewis.  This is really a great article.You focused on the two largest problems with the Marten leadership: Lack of accountability and lack of transparency.

    A close 3rd, and maybe the cause of 1 and 2, is a total lack of experience and credentials for the job.

    The scary part is that you covered only a portion of the issues that have occurred under Marten.  I could name many more…among them:

    -How about the student sexual abuse and Marten answering “it depends” under oath when asked if a sexual issue between two kindergarteners is a “serious incident”?

    -How about ignoring REAL Restorative Justice with no budget and no staff

    -What about the slow death of GATE?

    -How about the removal of ELST's with no plan to support ELL students?

    - How about the MRAP?

    - How about her accepting the job  with her selection violating the Brown Act in secret with no community input?

    - How about her having only Elementary School experience and lack of large district credentials that caused all these disasters?, How about her enabling Board  of Ed cronies?

    -How about the current toxic SDUSD work environment?

    And many, many more we have written about on District Deeds...too many to list. - 

    BTW-the SDUSD Board of Education is in closed session both Tuesday and Thursday creating Marten's annual evaluation..just posted about it on my blog.

    In any case-Great job!

    kkaponis subscriber

    @DistrictDeeds wordpress com how about her, and the boards, FAQ's regarding PE when it was on the chopping block.  It mentioned that if elementary pe was eliminated the classroom teachers would continue to provide "quality" instruction in an area they have little or no ability to teach.  I'm surprised no investigative reporter has looked into that ed code violation.  Probably all elem. schools in the district are out of compliance while students lose out on 1000 plus minutes on mandated amounts.  Latest research show SDUSD students are approaching 40% on the unhealthy/obese scale.  Trust me, next year they will push to eliminate credentialed PE teacher in elem schools. 

    Kelly Donivan
    Kelly Donivan subscriber

    I am so glad that my youngest child is done with the K-12 world.  She attended Catholic schools and I would say that her high school was more than outstanding.  It is because her older siblings attended public school and those experiences were less than positive, that I sent her to private school.

    I agree that the school board needs to be replaced.  Completely replaced.  I also think that the superintendent needs to go as well. I'm all for "promoting from within" but Cindy Marten hasn't improved anything in the last four years.  Had my child been affected by the AP test debaucle, I'd be furious.  My youngest only took one AP class, but her school was more than diligent in following the testing procedures.

    I am pleased that VOSD is keeping watch on SDUSD.  

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    Martin is a symptom, the school board is the problem. Union Labor bosses and organized labor puppets have locked down special deals for their unions to the point non-union local tax paying construction workers can't work on bond (tax) funded school construction work and tenured school teachers possess job security super powers.

    I appreciate the information VOSD has provided on public education but as long as special interest hacks populate the SDUSD school board with the full backing of Sacramento nothing will be done other than tomorrow's new example of students / tax payers getting screwed again.

    rhylton subscriber

    @philip piel I am in love! I react with rapture when I see references to "Union Labour bsses". The expressions "special deals" followed by   "special interests" is a coupling that brings on ecstasy; magical expressions, all. Where they fail is that they provide little or no information as they titillate.

    I do agree on the super powers held by tenured teachers and on the unsuitability of Martin.

    blake hofstad
    blake hofstad

    @philip piel This won't change until school board elections are changed to NOT be city-wide, which makes it much harder for candidates without the financial backing of the unions (LaShae Collins is a recent example) to win city-wide elections even if they have the support of their district. Council Dems voted against changing this earlier this year...

    sosocal subscriber

    @blake hofstad @philip piel Take a look at the 2016-2017 San Diego County Grand Jury Report on School Board Elections.  It made some good points.