Superintendent Confirms 'Part of' Ex-Principal's Account

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Superintendent Says School Board Member's Son 'Part of' Reason for Principal's Removal

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said Tuesday that there is some truth to a former School of Creative and Performing Arts principal’s account that incidents involving school board president Marne Foster’s son factored into why she was removed from the school.

Mitzi Lizarraga said she was removed as principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts because school board President Marne Foster was displeased with how her son was treated at the school.

Foster’s son had received a disappointing college recommendation from a school counselor, and he was barred from attending the school’s prom because of behavioral issues.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, in her first interview with Voice of San Diego since Lizarraga made the claim, said there is some truth to it.

“It would be wrong to say that’s not part of the story, but that’s not the whole story,” Marten said.

Tuesday night, the board will meet in closed session to discuss actions it will take in light of the facts that have emerged about its school board president.

Marten declined to elaborate on the reasons she removed Lizarraga from the job. In the interview, as she has with other media, Marten argued that Foster, as a school board member and parent of a student, was within her rights to demand action at her son’s school.

Marten also confirmed it was a counselor named Megan Blum who inappropriately shared with Foster a less-than-favorable college evaluation written about Foster’s son. The superintendent won’t say whether Blum was ever punished for this – citing employee discipline matters – but current and former staff members at the school said Blum was only given a letter of reprimand for her actions.

Kim Abagat, however, the counselor who wrote the evaluation, was suspended for nine days. Abagat says the suspension was unpaid, and cost her thousands of dollars.

“I was punished for telling the truth,” Abagat recently told VOSD.

Emails VOSD posted last week show that Foster was furious after Blum shared the evaluation. She demanded action. Instead of taking her concerns to the school principal – the chain-of-command parents would typically follow – Foster complained about Abagat’s letter to Joe Fulcher, a former senior manager in the district.

“I am writing you and decidedly bypassing SCPA leadership as a result of extreme lack of confidence, distrust and disgust!” Foster wrote in one email.

Foster then demanded the negative evaluation be retracted and replaced with a new one. She demanded a copy of her son’s evaluation and demanded Abagat be prevented from submitting any more evaluations for her son. (It’s unclear why she demanded a copy of an evaluation the superintendent now acknowledges was already inappropriately provided to her.)

Foster did not have a right to access the evaluation in the way that she did. Foster’s son had waived rights to view it.

The less-than-favorable evaluation was retracted and replaced with a glowing one, written by Blum. District officials also restricted Abagat’s access to the college application system.

Marten was copied on emails between Foster and Fulcher, showing the superintendent was aware of the situation from the early stages.

According to an email from Fulcher, Marten even discussed a plan for how the school would respond to Foster’s concerns. (The plan itself was not included in emails VOSD received as part of a public records request.)

Marten acknowledges that she was part of that conversation, but said her involvement was limited to explaining rules for Foster and Fulcher to follow: Foster must maintain a separation between her roles as a parent and public official.

Board governance policy states that board members “will not give direction to any employee other than the superintendent and any other employee who may report directly to the board.”

Despite the policy, Marten argues that Foster didn’t “technically” violate any rules by making demands. Parents can, and do, make all kinds of demands, Marten said.

“Just because demands are made does not mean they’re met without us fully vetting: Is this demand in the best interest of the student? Is this demand within legal rights? Is this demand part of our process? We have to put it through all of that and vet it out,” she said.

Foster signed her emails as a mother, Marten said, which shows Foster was exercising typical parental rights.

Foster isn’t a typical parent, however. She is a school board member who has used her influence to benefit her family members – and has admitted to doing so.

The new information settles one mysterious point about how the situation evolved. But it doesn’t necessarily exonerate Marten from the possibility that she turned a blind eye while a school counselor was punished for writing accurate information about Foster’s son.

And yet to be explained is the biggest question in the ordeal: Why Lizarraga, the former SCPA principal, was removed from her position.

To this point, much attention has been paid to the college evaluation letter, which Foster ultimately blamed on Lizarraga. The story only got weirder when the father of Foster’s son came forward and told VOSD Foster had used the evaluation to falsify a legal complaint that asked for $250,000 in damages.

But when I spoke to Lizarraga in August, she described another dustup involving Foster’s son in Lizarraga’s final days as principal, which she believes led more directly to her ouster:

Lizarraga said as the 2013-2014 school year drew to a close, Foster’s son had unresolved behavioral issues. Students have to meet with a school committee to review the issues before they’re allowed to participate in end-of-the-year activities. Foster’s son did not appear for the review, Lizarraga said. For that, he couldn’t go to prom – the same consequences students in similar situations face.

Not long after, Lamont Jackson, the area superintendent responsible for the school, requested a meeting with Lizarraga. He was there to tell her Foster’s son would be attending the dance, she said.

“At that point, I just threw my hands up and said, ‘Fine. I’m so sick of Marne Foster. I’m tired of her throwing her weight around and her thinking the rules don’t apply to her,’” Lizarraga said.

She said she was shocked by what came next.

“He said, ‘Good. Now that that’s resolved, let’s talk about where you’re going to be next year. We have some questions about your leadership at this school,’ ” Lizarraga said.

Lizarraga would not complete the year. Jackson asked for her keys to the school, she said, and she was not allowed to attend the school’s graduation ceremony. In the coming weeks, district officials would create a role for her and assign her to a leadership position in the district’s visual and performing arts department – which already had a director.

As of Tuesday morning, Marten said she could not discuss in detail the reasons why Lizarraga was removed as principal.

But she confirmed that Lizarraga’s version of events is at least related to the reasons for her removal.

“It would be wrong to say that’s not part of the story, but that’s not the whole story,” Marten said.

Without a detailed account, it is impossible to determine whether Lizarraga’s removal was justified – or whether Marten caved to pressure from Foster to make the staffing change, as Lizarraga believes.

Hours before the board meeting, VOSD editors received copies of letters of support from community members rallying behind Foster.

“The reporting regarding the Board President, seem solely based on speculation and innuendo by some in the media and not facts,” supporters wrote in one joint-letter to school board members.

“Ironically, Marne Foster 
has 
been criticized for being
 too heavily involved in
 the 
schools 
she 
represents, and the
 media 
have not 
hesitated to search
 out and 
highlight
 any disgruntled 
employee
 or
 community
 member 
for 
negative comments regarding 
Foster’s 
involvement in her 
schools.
 Board
 member involvement in schools is a 
good thing, not 
a 
bad thing,” wrote Dorothy L.W. Smith, a former school board president.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said a plan for how the School of Performing Arts would respond to Foster’s requests was redacted from a set of emails VOSD obtained in a public records request. The plan was not included in those emails.

Show Comments
Loading

We’re striving for the best possible discussion and may delete comments using our editorial judgment. All comments containing links will be reviewed by VOSD staff before they are published.
Read our full comment policy.
For longer comments, consider submitting an op-ed to Voice of San Diego.
Read the guidelines here.

We have recently updated our commenting system. If you are unable to submit a comment, please clear the cache and cookies in your browser, or use a private browsing window. Click here for detailed instructions.