Why We’re Suing San Diego Unified - Voice of San Diego

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Why We’re Suing San Diego Unified

VOSD made a series of requests for emails related to former school board Trustee Marne Foster, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Superintendent Cindy Marten and former principal Mitzi Lizarraga. The district complied with the requests, but redacted a number of records, arguing the information needed to remain confidential. The relevant legal question is whether the public’s right to know outweighs the agency’s right to protect information that could potentially cause it harm.

San Diego Unified will not release records related to a probe that led to the resignation of board member Marne Foster.

We still have many questions. So, after exhausting all other avenues, we have decided to sue the school district. Our lawyer Felix Tinkov is handling the case. Here is the background.

Starting in August, Voice of San Diego produced a series of reports that showed Foster repeatedly made demands on staff members at the school her son attended and pressured Superintendent Cindy Marten to remove the school’s principal, Mitzi Lizarraga, from her position.

The ordeal dominated headlines for five months before it came to a quiet close in February, when Foster pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was forced to resign from office.

In the end, Foster pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gifts – something previously unreported.

But the controversy surrounding Foster actually started years prior, when her son was a student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Foster, the school board trustee, and Lizarraga, a school district employee, had a longstanding personal dispute.

In June 2014, just days before the school was set to hold its graduation ceremony, Lizarraga was abruptly removed from her position.

In the following days, according to records obtained by VOSD, more than a dozen parents and former students emailed Marten and members of the school board in support of Lizarraga. Several wondered if Foster was behind the decision.

VOSD made a series of requests for emails related to the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Marten and Lizarraga.

The district complied with these requests, but redacted a number of records, arguing the information needed to remain confidential.

Absent in the records, for instance, is any substantive conversation between Marten and other high-ranking officials regarding why Lizarraga should be removed as principal of her school.

Under state law, members of the public, including journalists, have a right to view copies of all emails and public documents unless they’re exempt from disclosure. Public agencies are permitted to withhold or redact certain information – like email addresses and phone numbers of private citizens, details of real estate negotiations or confidential student records.

From a legal standpoint, the relevant question is whether the public’s right to know outweighs the agency’s right to protect information that could potentially cause it harm.

In this case, district officials used taxpayer money to hire an investigator to look into Foster’s actions. Marten released 61 pages of personnel information about two employees, but refused to release other relevant documents. The public has very little record of how Marten acted throughout the investigation.

In other words, we believe the public’s right to know outweighs the district’s right to privacy in this case. So we’ve asked a judge to compel the district to release relevant records.

From the suit:

“Voice believes the district withholds and/or redacts a number of responsive public records in an effort to limit damage to the public image of several high ranking public officials.

Voice is keenly interesting in the activities of the district and its personnel and trustee, as are thousands of its readers. The district’s failure to release responsive public records in reply to a lawful (public records) request has resulted in harm to Voice and the public at large. This Petition and the injunctive relief sought should be granted immediately.”

We want insight into the conversation that immediately preceded Lizarraga’s removal. We don’t know the actual contents of that discussion, but we feel the information should be released.

San Diego Unified has until June 6 to respond to the suit.

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