Emails Back Up Misspending Allegation at Lincoln High

Education

Emails Back Up Misspending Allegation at Lincoln High

A community member accused district officials of misspending money earmarked for math tutoring at Lincoln High. Emails obtained by VOSD back up his claim, and show district leaders knew about the misspending but still took steps to delegitimize him.

Abraham Lincoln High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For more than a year, Roosevelt Blackmon, a Black community leader in southeastern San Diego, has been saying as loud as he can, and to anyone who would listen, that top San Diego Unified officials misspent several hundred thousand dollars at Lincoln High School.

The heart of Blackmon’s claim was this: Community members, including himself, who served on Lincoln’s School Site Council authorized money to be spent a certain way. But in the end, school leaders didn’t spend the money how the council members wanted – even though the members have a legally mandated role in approving how certain funds are spent.

Until now, Blackmon’s allegations have been difficult to prove. Officials have sidestepped his claims. But emails obtained by Voice of San Diego show that high-level officials – including Superintendent Cindy Marten and the district’s recently appointed chief of staff, Sofia Freire – have been aware since at least July 2019 that the underlying basis of Blackmon’s claim is accurate.

The story might have stopped there, if officials had acknowledged to Blackmon there were problems with how the money was allocated. Instead, district leaders took steps to delegitimize him and obstruct his ability to perform his duties in multiple official roles he held at Lincoln, the emails show.

The school district also hired an outside law firm to investigate Blackmon’s claims. The investigation confirmed the nature of his allegations, but cleared the school district of legal wrongdoing. District leaders never showed Blackmon the report, he said.

“The superintendent said to me, ‘I’m gonna take care of this. I’ll fix this.’ I gave them a year and half to fix it and they didn’t do a damn thing,” said Blackmon. “I feel vindicated. And now people need to be held accountable.”

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Blackmon’s allegations of misspending have always been complicated. His central claim is that community members voted to spend six figures on math tutoring for Lincoln students – because the school’s math scores had been so continuously bad – but the money went elsewhere.

I first met with him to investigate the claims in 2019, but at the time the evidence didn’t seem to point one way or another.

Then in February 2020 at a meeting of the Lincoln cluster group – an official committee that serves Lincoln and all its feeder elementary and middle schools – Blackmon made his allegations public. Community members at the meeting were shocked and upset.

Blackmon actually served in two official roles at Lincoln. He was a member of the School Site Council, and he was chair of the cluster group. He shared the allegations in his position as chair of the cluster group.

“We want to use the word misappropriated. We want to use the term misdirected. I told my team, I said, ‘Let’s go ‘hood on it.’ That money was stolen. It was stolen from children. And I’ll stand on that,” Blackmon said at the meeting.

To be clear, Blackmon has never claimed anyone stole money to line their pockets. He’s claimed that community members wanted several hundred thousand dollars spent in one way, but that district leaders spent it in another – which, to his way of thinking, constitutes thievery from the children.

Blackmon has claimed the misspending totaled roughly $400,000. The district has acknowledged problems with the spending, but came up with a lower number. In a July 2019 email titled “Confidential” to Marten and Lincoln’s principals, Freire acknowledged $220,000 wasn’t allocated the way it should have been.

“Last year’s SSC approved 2 large budget items BUT (emphasis Freire’s) funds were never allocated for these expenses,” Friere wrote. The two big-ticket items were the math tutoring ($120,000) and some textbooks ($100,000.)

To review the timeline: Blackmon first began questioning the spending in spring 2019. By July 2019, Freire had determined $220,000 was not allocated properly. Blackmon was frequently in contact with Freire at the time, but she never acknowledged to him the district made a mistake, he said. Freire did not respond to a request for comment.

For months, Blackmon stewed. He was sure he was in the right, but the district acknowledged nothing, he said. Finally, at the February 2020 cluster group meeting, Blackmon was compelled to speak out. Once that happened, district officials actively began undermining his official roles and told him they were no longer willing to work with him, the emails show.

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In a district with a yearly budget of more than $1 billion, Blackmon’s allegation might appear isolated and small – with no wider implications for the greater school district or how it conducts its business.

But perhaps no other school in San Diego Unified has a deeper connection to the city’s Black community than Lincoln. The school has produced many of San Diego’s most prominent Black leaders, as well as several professional athletes. But Lincoln has languished academically – and produced uneven outcomes for its Black students across a wide array of metrics. Community members have complained for years that the school doesn’t get its fair share of resources.

Only one complaint has been more frequent: That district officials don’t listen to the Lincoln community and repeatedly ignore  wishes – a criticism that goes to the heart of Blackmon’s story.

“They do not listen [to parents in the Lincoln cluster]” said Bill Ponder, a community member who has previously run for school board, of district officials. “That kind of relationship has been endemic in the district for as long as I can remember. It’s very adversarial. The district attitude is, ‘Let’s not provide them information because they will start advocating for certain things and then we would have to deliver them.’”

“If they made attempts to listen or do what community members have asked for, there would be different outcomes,” Ponder said.

Officials have repeatedly tried to start fresh at Lincoln, to little or no avail. Principals have been changed in and out repeatedly over the last 14 years. And in 2007 a complete campus rebuild was the great new hope. But despite all the changes, academic performance has remained largely unchanged.

When Marten was first appointed superintendent in 2013, she pledged to make gains at Lincoln and spent a significant amount of time at the school.

“What’s happening at Lincoln is at the heart of the struggle in America,” Marten said at the time. “When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.”

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Understanding Blackmon’s tale requires going back to the night of Jan. 31, 2019. That evening the School Site Council Lincoln held a meeting. School Site Councils are like Parent Teacher Associations – only instead of raising money, they have an official role in approving a school’s budget and weighing in on other concerns.

According to meeting minutes, the evening started with a presentation on a math tutoring program that would be provided by a group called Cal-SOAP. Blackmon and another member were supportive of the plan to spend money on tutoring. The school’s principal at the time, Jose Soto-Ramos, cast some doubt on whether it would be a good idea.

Next, the committee ran into some disagreements about Soto-Ramos’s ideas for the budget. He wanted to hire three different administrative positions. One would be responsible for intervention measures for students who were falling behind and the other two appeared to have more clerical duties involving attendance.

Blackmon supported the intervention position. But he and two other members of the council questioned whether all three of the hires were necessary.

One of these positions “looks a lot like” the other, Blackmon said, according to the minutes. Other committee members also noted there appeared to be overlap in the positions.

Soto-Ramos shifted the conversation. He indicated the budget could be changed after it was approved.

“We can approve the budget now, and then we can change how much goes where,” he said, according to the minutes.

Friere, who then served as area superintendent over Lincoln but has since been promoted to the district’s chief of staff role, was at the meeting, but didn’t interject, according to the minutes.

Blackmon echoed Soto-Ramos’s point, saying: “We can approve this budget” and then “decide later.”

All voted to approve the budget, except for one member. Robert Patmon, one of the members who questioned the need for three positions, abstained.

Seven days later, on Feb. 7, 2019, the School Site Council met again. This time it officially approved $120,000 for the tutoring that had been discussed at the last meeting, according to the minutes. But that money would never be spent.

The district initiated an investigation by a law firm called Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. That investigation found the council approved the funds “when there was no identified monies, and moreover, no available/unencumbered monies to spend,” according to excerpts of the investigation shared by district spokeswoman Maureen Magee. She did not share the full report.

Essentially the argument is this: The School Site Council did approve funds that were never spent. But that’s because there wasn’t enough money available to fund what the School Site Council wanted, the investigation found.

To the extent money was not actually available for the School Site Council’s desires, neither Soto-Ramos nor Freire made that clear to the School Site Council, according to the minutes.

What’s more, it appears that the three positions Soto-Ramos wanted did make it into Lincoln’s spending plan, despite the fact that council members made it clear they didn’t love that plan and believed it could be changed.

The investigation also found no one misappropriated any funds “for personal gain,” according to the excerpt. And it noted that a majority of School Site Council members voted to approve the Jan. 31, 2019 budget.

Blackmon doesn’t deny either of those claims. His major contention all along has been that Lincoln officials didn’t spend the money the way council members understood it would be spent. Both the investigation and the minutes from the two council meetings back up that version of events.

While reporting this story, I viewed one district document that was entirely dedicated to the question of how officials should manage Blackmon, who wasn’t giving up his quest to find out what happened.

The document noted that Blackmon had been telling people that some of the officials involved could “go to jail for implementing a budget that was not approved.” Blackmon had a relationship with another area superintendent named Bruce Bivins. The document noted, “We might have to leverage Bruce to talk to Roosevelt [Blackmon.]”

Bivins did eventually reach out to Blackmon. But when he did it was in an email that Blackmon, a Black man, found offensive and full of racial stereotypes, Blackmon said.

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One year after the January and February School Site Council meetings, no one knew Blackmon had been telling the truth. So he decided to use one of his other official roles to air his case.

Blackmon served as chair of the Lincoln cluster group, which also met regularly. Unlike School Site Council meetings, cluster meetings tend to be attended by many members of the community.

Blackmon made his case about the misused money. The meeting got heated and community members eventually began pressing district officials for answers.

Sharon Whitehurt-Payne, a school board member who represents Lincoln and its cluster schools, stood up to answer questions.

“As far as what Roosevelt is talking about in terms of the $400,000, we knew about this a little under a year ago,” she said. “I referred it to the superintendent and to the attorney and said whatever happened with that money, I was not there, I don’t know what happened, but you all look into it.”

The district did initiate the investigation by the outside law firm, as Whitehurst-Payne noted. Whitehurst-Payne told me at the time that as soon as that investigation was completed the results would be shared with Blackmon.

The official investigation wrapped up in July 2020, but Blackmon was never informed, he told me.

It’s unclear whether Whitehurst-Payne knew that a year earlier, in July 2019, Freire wrote the email backing up the underlying part of Blackmon’s claims: That several hundred thousand dollars had been spent in a way that went against the School Site Council’s wishes.

Whitehurst-Payne did not respond to a request for comment asking if she knew about Freire’s email.

Board member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, right, and Roosevelt Blackmon address a cluster meeting in February 2020. / Photo by Will Huntsberry

Bivins, one of the area superintendents, as well as several principals and vice principals, were also at the cluster meeting.

Days after the cluster meeting, Bivins sent Blackmon an email.

Bivins indicated the meeting felt unsafe. And he told Blackmon that he and the other cluster principals would no longer attend the meetings.

“The cluster meeting, as at it currently stands, is not a safe, orderly, and productive space for principals, their staff and the families they serve,” Bivins wrote.

“That pissed me off,” said Blackmon. “That email gave the impression that we are these enraged people – that Black people don’t know how to act. … Like we’re animals. Like we can’t have civilized conversation.”

Cluster groups create a line of communication between school staff and community members. The meetings are intended to give parents a platform to air concerns and collaborate with school staff. But Bivins’ email indicated that school staff was essentially pulling out of the group – which significantly damaged its ability to function.

Bivins did not respond to a request for comment.

“I didn’t see any danger at that meeting,” said Blackmon. “The only danger was a risk of exposure. They knew I had the understanding and knowledge of what really happened. And they knew they were going to get exposed.”

Blackmon now is far more isolated from the official Lincoln community than when he first tried to air his concerns. His term on the School Site Council expired. And ultimately, the status of the cluster group is unclear, he told me. Lincoln’s website still lists Blackmon as the cluster group chair.

But Blackmon told me he no longer holds that post. He said he is still organizing with some of the same community members but they now consider themselves an outside community group, rather than the official Lincoln cluster group.

“Here’s the thing that bothered me the most: as long as you don’t talk against them, they’ll support you,” Blackmon said. “But if you go against them, they’ll try to get rid of you.”

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