The Learning Curve: Fraud Allegations and Fractured Trust in Southeastern San Diego - Voice of San Diego

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The Learning Curve: Fraud Allegations and Fractured Trust in Southeastern San Diego

The parents at a meeting this week for the Lincoln High cluster came to make one message clear to school officials: You are failing our children.

Lincoln High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Monday, just after the sun set and a full moon started to rise, some 45 people gathered in the auditorium of Walter J. Porter Elementary School for a meeting of the Lincoln High School Cluster. The cluster is composed of 13 elementary and middle schools that feed into Lincoln High in the southeastern corner of San Diego Unified School District.

Four out of the 14 schools will be added to the state’s list of worst-performing schools this year. The list doesn’t just account for test scores, but school climate. To make the list, schools must be flagged across a wide range of metrics, which include suspension and absentee rates.

The parents at the meeting, who were mostly black, had come to make one message clear to school officials: You are failing our children. They did not come armed with the patience or tolerance to hear new allegations of misconduct in the cluster from cluster president Roosevelt Blackmon.

Blackmon, wearing a white turtleneck and velvet sports coat, picked up a microphone at the front of the auditorium and told a convoluted tale of cover-ups and misspent funds at Lincoln. It boiled down to this: Nearly a year ago, school administrators illegally bucked the orders of the School Site Council (an official group composed of parents and teachers) and spent $400,000 on purposes for which the money was not intended, he contended.

“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 told the crowd.

Board member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, right, and Lincoln Cluster president Roosevelt Blackmon address a cluster meeting. / Photo by Will Huntsberry

A note on process: The School Site Council at each school in the district has the authority to tell principals how to spend certain funds. Blackmon insisted that he and other parents on the council wanted some of the money spent on math tutoring. Instead, Lincoln’s principal spent the money on other things, Blackmon said. (Exactly what the money was spent on remains unclear.)

Regardless of whether Blackmon’s accusation is accurate or whether it represents malfeasance on the part of school officials, it echoes a common complaint of families in southeastern San Diego. They try to make their voices heard; and the district doesn’t listen.

Among the audience were Lincoln’s school board representative, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, her opponent in this year’s election, LaWana Richmond, and mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson. Blackmon talked for upward of 30 minutes – answering questions from all corners of the room – before people started asking for Whitehurst-Payne and other officials to answer for the allegations.

“They’re right there in front of you. Let them speak,” said Williamson, who was livestreaming the meeting from the back of the room.

Mayoral candidate Tasha Williamson speaks at a Lincoln Cluster meeting. / Photo by Will Huntsberry

Whitehurst-Payne stood up and gave a modest wave. “Good evening, everyone,” she said. “As far as what Roosevelt is talking about in terms of the $400,000, we knew about this a little under a year ago … 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.”

(Since the alleged misappropriation, the entire leadership at Lincoln High School has been fired. Whitehurst-Payne claimed she was instrumental in doing away with them.)

Whitehurst-Payne said the district is conducting an ongoing investigation into what happened to the funds and claimed it boils down to a he said, she said between Blackmon and other parties. (In a follow-up email, she said the investigation is being done by an outside firm.)

“I have chosen to not spend my time worrying about that $400,000,” she said. “This conversation tonight is important, but have we talked really about what’s going on with our children today?” she said.

“What you’re telling me is the school did not adhere to the parents’ will. The money was misappropriated and you are not worried about it,” said one woman sitting toward the front named Samantha Jenkins.

“That’s not true,” said Whitehurst-Payne, as the women began to talk over each other.

“What you said ma’am … ” said Jenkins.

“Look, look, look, listen, listen.”

“Do not take that tone with me.”

Pointing downward forcefully to make her point, Whitehurst-Payne said, “Would you listen to me!”

A pastor in the audience brought up the question of school quality. He claimed that charter schools in the neighborhood were performing better than district schools. “Some of them, not all,” said Whitehurst-Payne back to him. “I have personal knowledge of kids leaving charters to come back to Lincoln High School and loving it.”

“I know at least one charter school kids aren’t leaving,” said Blackmon, not elaborating further. “I’m gonna tell you, never will I allow my child to go to Lincoln High School. Never will my child go to Lincoln.”

Another woman toward the front spoke up saying she was conflicted about raising charters above the traditional neighborhood schools. “I’m not proud to say I won’t send my children [to Lincoln],” she said.

I watched the meeting from a seat in the back. Several principals spoke up at times to echo Whitehurst-Payne and explain how they were doing the best they could for their schools. But it was very clear that the trust between the community members and those who spoke on behalf of the district disappeared a long time ago. Truth and reconciliation was desperately needed.

“I’m a parent and I’ve been here 20 years. My children graduated from Lincoln and Johnson,” said Williamson, responding to a principal. “It’s not as easy as you think [getting parents involved] … Parents have been ostracized and damaged by this school district. So there’s gonna have to be some wrongs righted. $400,000 – is it missing in La Jolla or Point Loma?”

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