On a recent evening, a group of PTA parents from Gage Elementary huddled together in the back of a Del Cerro bistro to brainstorm ideas for how to handle a school district that they say can’t or won’t answer basic questions about their children’s school.
At the table sat an exceptionally well-resourced group of parents. Lisa Deaton is a scientist for a pharmaceutical company. Megan Nuñez is a special education attorney. Jeff Bennett is a member of the National Guard who also serves on the District Advisory Council, an advisory board that makes recommendations for how the district should spend money to support students.
Enrollment at Gage Elementary, in San Carlos, has climbed for the past four years. And with a growing portion of students coming from the surrounding area, it’s becoming the kind of school the district says it wants to create in every neighborhood.
But the parents recently discovered that even when everything is working well within the school, outside forces can threaten its progress. In January, the district announced it was facing a $124 million deficit. In order to balance the budget, funding for programs and staff members are on the chopping block districtwide. Worst of all, parents say, is that they’ve found no one who can explain why.
In March, the district sent layoff notices to roughly 1,500 employees – including five at Gage: One gym teacher and four Spanish teachers. That’s not as many as schools in the district’s poorest areas , where upwards of 50 percent of teachers received a layoff notice this year. But parents say the layoffs at Gage would disrupt the school’s carefully structured dual-immersion language program and some of the very programs they credit for the school’s gains.
“It’s really an issue of really having the rug pulled out from under you,” said Lisa Darner, a real estate agent.
“Everything seems hunky-dory, and now here’s all these layoff notices. And now we’re $124 million in deficit? That didn’t happen overnight, but nobody is owning the problem,” she said.
In recent weeks, the district rescinded some of those pink slips, but two teachers at Gage are still slotted for layoffs. And Deaton said they’ve yet to receive any assurances they won’t be fighting the same battle next year.
The parents say they’ve tried all the typical routes to engagement. They’ve spoken at board meetings. They met privately with the school board member who represents them. Yet they’re still no closer to unlocking the secrets of San Diego Unified’s budget.
They want answers to basic questions, like: Why is there such a budget shortfall to begin with? Where does the district’s money go, exactly?
At a school board meeting in April, trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne asked similar questions from the dais. She didn’t understand the budget, she told Superintendent Cindy Marten and the rest of the board. Couldn’t they organize it more logically, with line items, so members of the public can see exactly what programs will get cut, by how much and why?
“This has the feeling like we’re flying by the seat of our pants kind of thing,” Whitehurst-Payne said.
A clear, understandable picture of the budget is exactly what Gage parents want, too. And they’ve grown frustrated waiting for it.
“If you, as a parent, as a taxpayer, want to see where money is going, it shouldn’t be this difficult to find out,” said Gage parent Megan Spencer.
“I feel like one of the themes here is: If these well-resourced, highly engaged parents don’t feel heard, and don’t feel like we can actually get our questions answered, and don’t feel like we can make any impact no matter what committees we serve on or what positions we have, what chance does the rest of this district have?” Nuñez said.
To them, this much is clear: San Diego Unified has a transparency problem.
It’s a complaint that transcends race and class. The call for accountability was echoed earlier this month when members of the African American Student Coalition called for an audit  to determine whether low-income students are seeing the money that’s earmarked for them.
A San Diego Unified spokesperson quickly dismissed the demand, saying the district already audits its spending, according to NBC San Diego.
Tensions rise when resources are scarce, and few parents are happy when their children’s school face cuts. But these days, when the district is losing thousands of students a year to charter schools, unhappy parents represent an even bigger risk to the district: If parents get fed up and send their students to charter schools or schools in other districts, funding would follow them out the door.
Not only would that cause the district more budget woes, it would cut against the district’s plan to create quality schools in every neighborhood that are filled with students from the surrounding areas.
“Part of their whole Vision 2020 was having a quality school in every neighborhood. So by dismantling all of the programs that make a quality school, they’re going to fail on their big hallmark plan,” said Deaton. “It’s just going to make more people look at charter schools, private schools – or just move altogether. If schools suck, people are going to move.”
The problem isn’t that parents don’t have opportunities to engage. It’s that parents don’t feel their voices are actually heard.
In 2013, California changed the way it funds schools. That year the state started sending more money to school districts and gave them more control over how to spend it. That freedom came with strings, however: Each district and charter school has to seek parent input for how to spend that money to support academic growth.
The problem is that there’s no requirement that district leaders actually heed parents’ recommendations. And that’s what chafes Gage parents.
“What it seems like is, they’re asking the stakeholders, but not listening to them,” said Spencer.
“Yeah,” said Bennett. “And if the recommendations from the stakeholders who go to meetings aren’t listened to or really considered, it disenfranchises you. It makes you not want to participate as much.”
The group met recently with Kevin Beiser, the school board member who represents their area. Beiser has lent a sympathetic ear, telling them that he’s at times had to follow up repeatedly with Marten to find information he’s seeking.
Earlier this year, Marten announced the district was under a hiring freeze. But Beiser told me that when he first requested information on the number of staff members who’d been hired during the freeze, he got no answers from Marten. He ended up asking a parent to file a public records request for the information – not that this approach would necessary turn around information any faster.
VOSD analyzed more than 400 California Public Records Act requests filed by members of the public between 2013 and 2016, and found if often takes the district more than 200 days to deliver records to citizens and journalists who request them. One citizen waited at least 517 days for records the district never delivered.
Beiser told me he eventually got the information he requested from Marten – exactly one hour before the board meeting in which he was asked to vote on layoffs.
“Without a doubt, I think we can do a better job of providing information promptly when people ask for it,” Beiser said. “It helps to establish trust with parents and the media, and it makes for a better school district. When we’re open about our information, it allows others to weigh in and offer solutions.”
Marten did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Back in the Del Cerro bistro, Bennett said he was unsettled by the story, which he also heard from Beiser.
“If he’s a board member, and he can’t get the information, what hope do we have?” Bennett said.
Beiser said Marten’s responsiveness to requests will be a consideration on this year’s performance review.
“There’s certainly room for improvement when it comes Marten’s responsiveness, but I think that’s true for every professional. We all have areas we need to improve. That’s not to say that Marten hasn’t done an amazing job in other areas,” he said.
A performance review that gave Marten anything less than a stellar review would represent a shift from the past three years. Despite the fact that last year’s evaluation came on the heels of a scandal that earned one school board member a criminal conviction and booted her from the board, Marten’s performance review last year was without blemish .
Marten and board members have credited their cordial relationship to the gains San Diego Unified has made as a district. Unlike school boards elsewhere, mired in continuous conflict with their superintendent, the fact that San Diego Unified’s superintendent is ideologically aligned with school board members allows them to implement reforms on the way to a common goal, they’ve argued.
The risk in such a relationship however, at least in terms of public perception, is that when there’s no separation between the board and superintendent, school board members could fail to provide responsible oversight and accountability.
Toward the end of the evening, parents started grasping for solutions.
What recourse do citizens have if they feel board members are derelict in their duties and simply rubber-stamp plans that come before them?
Could the state take over the district, fire Marten and remove board members?
Spencer heard that a state takeover is a severe and draconian option that results in a loss of local control, but it might be worth considering, she said.
“I mean similarly, those guys don’t seem like they’re beholden to what we have to say now, so how much worse can it be?” said Spencer.
It could probably be worse, the group agreed. Maybe they’ll have to wait for the next election, when parents can elect new school board members to better represent their interests and hold the superintendent to account.
Just then, a waiter arrived to hand out checks for the meal. Bennett reached for his bill, then paused in thought.
“You know, unfortunately, a lot of this is probably going to be forgotten by the time the next election rolls around,” he said.