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San Diego Unified Has an Overwhelming List of Problems, and the District Should Lean Into Them

San Diego Unified, under Superintendent Cindy Marten, has been obsessed not with fixing its problems but with denying they exist.

When Cindy Marten became the superintendent of San Diego Unified, she had a harsh take on the state of the school system.

She recognized that the district could not say what a quality school was and yet was committed to providing one in each neighborhood. The district desperately needed more money, but had no way to measure what the return on new investments would be.

“This will be the central tension of Marten’s term. She does not have a very positive evaluation of the district as it is. But she refuses to blame anyone for its current state,” I wrote when she started in summer 2013.

Four years later, it absolutely has been the central tension of her term. Marten is overwhelmed with troubles and yet she is unwilling to fully, publicly confront any of them.

Voice of San Diego has uncovered many of these problems. But even I get lost in the daily drumbeat. So I sat down to write out the list of challenges and it left me dismayed.

We did see a drastic increase in funding for the district, just as Marten hoped when she started. Actually, nobody could have reasonably imagined a faster, sharper infusion of cash.  And that came even though the district is educating fewer students than it had in 2013.

Four years later, Marten has fewer students to educate and yet somehow has more employees than she did when she took over. Yet class sizes haven’t gone down.

No, district leaders cannot say what the money has achieved.

We can’t track funds intended for poorer schools. Those poorer schools are, in fact, now bearing the worst of the layoffs from a deficit that somehow opened up despite the new funding.

The central achievement Marten and district trustees point to — the graduation rate — is a metric stained by what it took to achieve. Students are cheating on online credit-recovery courses. The district pushed struggling students off to charter schools, protecting the graduation rate from their struggles.

School facilities somehow fell into worse disrepair despite billions of dollars in taxes approved by voters precisely for construction and major repair needs. A dog detected lead in water in a school whose decrepit plumbing the district had used over and over again as a reason to support new taxes. The new taxes came but the district never fixed the plumbing.

Money did go to a new athletic field though. I’m not even going to get into what a mess those fields have been.

Stable leadership is a fantasy for some of the most troubled high schools. Only after an uprising at Lincoln High School did the district finally stop an endless search for a new principal. That school, which Marten highlighted as the litmus test of her leadership, remains beleaguered and hemorrhaging students — its pristine facilities serving far fewer than it could.

One of the district’s top managers told Lincoln-area parents that their kids were entering high school reading at a second-grade level. It infuriated them. If it was a false smear, it was unacceptable condescension. If it was true, it should have triggered a declaration of emergency.

There was no declaration of emergency.

Marten pushed out the charismatic principal of Hoover High in the middle of the year. We don’t know why.

Now the district is facing a hot fire in Scripps Ranch after hundreds of students learned they have to retake Advanced Placement tests because of an error. The district instinctually denied it had done anything wrong or that anyone had cheated (someone apparently had).

Not all of these are Marten’s fault. It certainly seems easier to negotiate with North Korea than to reform a large urban school district.

But the district, under Marten, has been obsessed not with fixing its problems but with denying they exist. Marten’s staff has been allergic to any acknowledgement of vulnerability. Nothing is ever wrong. Nothing is ever bad. The news is fake.

An inconvenient journalist was indirectly warned by the district’s communications chief that her dead body might wash up on shore. No matter, we were assured, it was just a joke.

The district illegally hid documents. It falls woefully behind on public records requests. Yet while many of those requests languished, last month, trustees and the media were barely able to prevent management from scrubbing all emails more than six months old without so much as a public hearing. Parents can’t get answers. Neither can trustees.

You know things are bad on transparency when Kevin Beiser, a school board member, reaches out to us to express his frustration. He once blocked me on Twitter.

These are just the front lines of obstruction. The bigger issue is the district’s cultural instinct to deny problems and reassure parents. In September, Marten comforted worried parents in the Lincoln High School area that it was going to be a great year for the school.

It was not.

That instinct — to calm and reassure your constituents is common in executives. It came out when Marten wanted to assure parents of students at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, who were on edge two years ago, when the school’s popular principal did not show up for graduation and the son of a school board member bragged he had gotten her fired.

No, no, Marten assured those parents. The principal had merely taken a new, special job with the district.

That turned out not to be true. And the trustee who pushed the principal out ended up resigning in disgrace.

This is what happens constantly with all these stories. When you deny problems and focus on reassuring people that things are going great, the media cycle becomes a constant spiral of proving you wrong. You deny the public the opportunity to have a conversation about what’s going on and you don’t demonstrate the confidence that, as a community, we’re strong enough to handle it.

Acknowledging a problem is not a sign of weakness — it’s quite the opposite. Smearing critics, hiding documents, clamming up, shutting out trustees and just patting parents on the head with assurances that it will all be fine does not inspire trust.

And yet that is still the path Marten is still taking.

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