EDUCATION MATTERS: Del Mar dominates local 2009 education stories

By Marsha Sutton
Retrospectives, common this time of year, provide perspective on where we were 12 months ago, where we traveled, and how far we’ve come.

The biggest news for education in California in 2009 was, of course, the devastating effects of the state’s miserable financial condition on public schools. Never before has public education in this state been faced with such a budget crisis. And next year promises to be not much better.

Managing the funding shortfall and juggling priorities were the top worries for every San Diego County school district in 2009. However, other pressing issues also presented themselves – in abundance, for one district in particular.

Four school districts serve local communities: the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade Del Mar Union School District and Solana Beach School District, the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Rancho Santa Fe School District and the grades 7-12 San Dieguito Union High School District.

Solana Beach, headed by Leslie Fausset, hummed along like a well-oiled machine this year. So did Rancho Santa Fe, where the uproar over purchasing land for a second school site, which sent the wealthy community into an unseemly tizzy in years past, disappeared for the most part once the fallback decision was made to expand existing facilities.

After abandoning its quest to purchase land for a second site, the RSF district now faces minimal opposition to the massive construction project on campus that a few parents say disrupts learning. The relative calm is a relief for superintendent Lindy Delaney who tried to navigate the treacherous political waters for years before finally giving up on buying land.

Most of the San Dieguito news centered around its transition to a Basic Aid district, which provides a different funding method based mostly on property taxes. This eventually will provide the district with more money but in the meantime creates planning and financial nightmares that keep superintendent Ken Noah awake at nights. A Torrey Pines High School student charged with driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter also dominated the news later in the year.

But by far the winner – if you can call it that – in local media attention this past year was the Del Mar Union School District, where extended studies funding issues, a restructuring of the nonprofit education foundation, teacher layoffs, dozens of special closed session meetings, a new superintendent under fire, and the need for a new district office have made the DMUSD Board of Education a soft target for dissatisfied parents and teachers.

For a review of the local 2009 education stories, selected “Education Matters” columns, quotes, personal observations and headlines follow.


Column: “Hitting the submit button on college applications”

Excerpt: While the number of students may have decreased slightly, “the number of applications due to everyone being nervous is going to go up,” said independent college adviser Ruthi Warburg. “So it’s not going to be an easier year.”

Column: “Adapting to the emerging independence of first-year college students”

Excerpt: “I understand their newfound independence, but when two of the four members of a household are operating on ‘bat time’ (up until 4 a.m. and sleeping until 1 p.m.) and the other two aren’t, it begins to take a toll,” said a parent.

Column: “A $2.3 million error in report reduces cost of Del Mar class size reduction program”

Excerpts: In fact, the cost to the district for CSR [class size reduction] is a fraction of the $2.9 million that’s shown in the DMUSD report, a report costing the district about $20,000 and taking nearly three months to complete.

[Consultant Caroline] Larson admitted her error and expressed deep regret. “I think you’re right,” she said. “I think I made a big blooper. I feel terrible. I’m really, really sorry.”

[DMUSD's Dena Whittington] said, “When I start with new principals and I do the Budget 101 thing, the first thing I tell them is that if you’re going to try to make sense, it’s not going to work.”

Front page headlines:
- “Carmel Valley skate park now free, unsupervised”
- “Speeding teens endanger Del Mar Pines children, parents say”
- “Extended Studies Curriculum at risk in Del Mar schools, district faces layoffs”


Column: “A leader at last”

Excerpt: The other task of school board members [besides ensuring fiscal stability] is to hire a superintendent. And in [Sharon] McClain, this beleaguered school board may have finally found a way out of its morass. No longer adrift, the DMUSD appears to have a leader at last who sees the urgent need to balance the budget and is presenting thoughtful, viable ways to do it.

Column: “Revolutionary visionaries: Student journalists shine”

Excerpt: We need journalists unafraid to challenge bureaucracies, those who are willing to upset powerful people. For where would we be as a country without a vigorous investigative press corps made up of tenacious people who refuse to be intimidated by authority figures or entrenched systems of government?

Front page headlines:
- “DM school district directs staff to draft regulations regarding policy restructuring on donations; art and P.E. programs face cuts”
- “Decision made to delay San Dieguito’s International Baccalaureate”
- “Del Mar Union School District to lay off 19 ESC teachers”


Column: “Sour economy slows giving at local high school foundations”

Excerpt: “We’re probably down about 50 percent of where we were last year,” said Torrey Pines High School Foundation president Brad Shoen.

Column: “Golden Apples and Greasy Spitballs in Del Mar”

Excerpts: Teachers are being laid off while classrooms sit empty. Why is the district shopping for real estate when they’ve got eight schools, few of which are full?

“The message there is that buildings are more important than people,” said [DMUSD teachers' union leader] David Skinner.

Front page headlines:
- “Del Mar Union School District approves district-allocated ESC program; recommends reduction/elimination of 44 teaching positions”
- “Lead negotiator of Del Mar teachers union resigns post”
- “Del Mar Union School District explores issue of shared contracts”
- “Del Mar teachers put on pink to rally for laid-off colleagues”


Column: “Softening the recession with a teacher’s $90,000 salary”

Excerpt: Teachers unions exist to protect and advance the rights of teachers. They are not set up to advance the interests of students. Sure, there’s some overlap. But the priority is on the teacher.

Column: “Dual tragedies: a week of remembering”

Excerpt: Columbine, April 20, 1999. It was the day two deranged students at Columbine High School in Colorado planned and executed one of the most cold-blooded, brutal attacks in modern history. It’s now 10 years after the worst high school shooting in the nation, and the country still reels from the massacre.

Front page headlines:
- “Last-minute funds pouring in to save ESC programs in DM school district”
- “DM school district accepting applications for 7/11 district advisory committee”
- “Del Mar Union School District rescinds 24 layoffs, more job may be saved by end of April”
- “OxyContin abuse continues to be an ongoing serious problem for local teens”


Column: “San Dieguito’s Rotten Timing”

Excerpt: “We may be Basic Aid, but we certainly aren’t a wealthy district,” said [San Dieguito associate superintendent Steve] Ma.

Column: “Cheating Scandal at Canyon Crest Exposes Districtwide Problem”

Excerpts: I don’t know which is worse – the fact that dozens of kids were caught cheating at Canyon Crest Academy or the apathetic way parents and administrators regard the moral lapse.

A single incident of cheating involving 50 to 60 kids at one of San Diego County’s highest performing high schools is news, but bigger news is that apparently many feel it’s not news at all.

Cheating is commonplace in the district. “At every school, every day, kids cheat,” [San Dieguito associate superintendent Rick] Schmitt said. “And kids get caught every day.”

[And a prized comment from a reader: "As long as the test scores confirm the superiority of the Carmel Valley master race, all is forgiven."]

Front page headlines:
- “Del Mar Schools Foundation presents board with check for $1,349,543; board expects to rescind more layoffs in early May”
- “Lawsuit alleges bullying at La Jolla Country Day School”
- “Some concerns raised over police handling of teen curfew violations”


Column: “Brown celebrates 55th anniversary”

Excerpts: There has been progress, certainly. Schools are technically integrated, and busing has allowed movement of some students to schools outside their neighborhoods. But many neighborhoods – and the schools within them – are still worlds apart.

It’s not overt racism at work any longer but rather a subtle form of discrimination that is no less alarming – the disparity in income that divides the poor from the middle and upper classes.

Column: “High school dropout rate shows no improvement”

Excerpts: Dropout numbers are depressing: Only 70 percent of students graduate from high school in this country. And this number, despite best efforts to shake it loose, just won’t budge.

These are young adults who have given up on the system – or who find that the system has given up on them. Their future is unstable and uncertain, and America’s more fortunate must take some responsibility for their fate.

It’s a matter of humanitarian concern. To ignore this deplorable situation is to turn our backs on the poor and the disadvantaged. And this in turn erodes American society not just on the outside, but from the inside as well.

Front page headlines:
- “Del Mar classified employees speak out against possible staff reductions next year”
- “Class of 2009 graduating seniors” – a story in pictures


Column: “Basic Aid districts offer to give up their ‘fair share’ of money”

Excerpts: According to Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, Basic Aid districts are prepared to forfeit $500 to $600 per student for the 2008-2009 school year, and $600 per student for the 2009-2010 school year, in money they receive for categorical programs.

“There’s not a district in California that’s not going to suffer,” [Solana Beach superintendent Leslie] Fausset said.

Column: “Arithmetic Blues”

Excerpt: How can it be that Del Mar has more than three times the number of students in need than Solana Beach? Especially considering that Del Mar reports that it has a 3.3 percent poverty rate district-wide, while Solana Beach has an 8.5 percent poverty rate.

Here’s how: creative arithmetic.

Column: “Superintendent contracts”

Excerpts: School board members have been meeting almost every other week for many months to evaluate the performance of their recently hired superintendent, Sharon McClain, who joined the district last September. Clearly, it’s not going smoothly.

The school board needs to step it up immediately and get control over the disarray and dysfunction that continue to characterize the Del Mar Union School District.

Front page headlines:
- “Del Mar Union School District balances budget for 2009-2010, faces potential $2.5 million deficit with ‘fair share’ spending”
- “Parents, students try to save beloved Carmel Del Mar instructional aide’s job”
- “Local middle school students win $25,000 first prize in national science competition”
- “San Dieguito Union High School District to limit out-of-district applications”


Front page headlines:
- “DM school district’s 7/11 committee examines refined proposals; community activism escalates”
- “STAR test results released”

Excerpt: “Most important is knowing that the kid is understanding the material and doing well in school,” said [San Dieguito's David] Jaffe [of standardized test results].


Column: “The Summer of ’09″

Excerpt: Those of us who said goodbye to our first-year college kids last fall have had a full nine months to adjust to the emptiness. And now they’re back, and it’s … well, different. People who have been through this before weren’t kidding when they warned us our kids come home changed.

Column: “Obama Speech, Take Two”

Excerpt: It was an embarrassing display of partisan divisiveness at its worst, with kids as pawns for adult issues. And the result was educators who caved to the demands of a handful of strident anti-Obama parents asking for nothing less than censorship of an inspirational presidential address aimed at encouraging young Americans to take their education seriously.

Front page headlines:
- “Area residents voice concern over possible school closures”
- “Obama speech gets limited airing”


Column: “Teens and alcohol – Rethinking a failed approach”

Excerpt: In high school, finding that rare student who has never tried alcohol is a challenge. Every survey, formal or informal, supports the obvious – teens drink.

It’s a clear indication that the problem is widespread and that whatever adults are saying to raise awareness is not working.

Column: “Monday morning blues”

Excerpt: “TPHS students celebrated homecoming this past weekend. Many of these students were partying on limo buses and at before- and after-parties. The ‘wake-up call’ for these students lasted all of what? One day, one week, never?” said one parent.

Front page headlines:
- “Car crash in RSF leaves one Torrey Pines student dead, driver charged”
- “Del Mar school district explores spatial needs and costs of new office”
- “TPHS teen driver of fatal rollover appears at hearing”
- “Parents urged to be vigilant to keep teens off drugs, experts say at local forum”


Column: “Mighty strings attached to education’s Race to the Top”

Excerpt: Tying student success to teacher performance is forbidden territory for most teachers’ unions. Keeping the two separated is almost as sacrosanct as seniority rights and tenure.

Column: “San Dieguito reacts to Race to the Top conditions”

Excerpts: [San Dieguito teachers' union leader Bob] Croft said the link sounds good on the surface – “Why shouldn’t we grade teachers on how well their students do?” – but implementation is complicated.

“In many businesses you reward performance,” Croft said. But in education, “it’s not an easy application [like] the general public might sometimes assume.”

Column: “The Hills would make a perfect district office”

Excerpt: Rather than closing the Hills and transferring all students to the Heights, the favorable idea of converting the Hills into a kindergarten and first-grade school that includes a preschool makes even more sense.

Front page headlines:
- “Community distraught over fatal TPHS teen crash”
- “TPHS journalism students talk about the tragedy”
- “Residents express frustration over Del Mar school district’s ‘stagnant’ approach to relocating new district office”
- “Driver in fatal TPHS teen crash pleads guilty”
- “Grievance filed against DM superintendent”
- “Student loses fingertip in school accident”


Column: “Saying thanks and giving back”

Excerpt: Research suggests that students who engage in community service “tend to have stronger ties to schools, peers and the community.”

Column: “Parent fees for public education come under scrutiny”

Excerpts: “It’s a tricky line,” said Brian Kohn, principal of Canyon Crest Academy, another high school in the San Dieguito district. “You want to make it clear these programs do cost money. They’re expensive. So you need the donations.” But Kohn said the school is careful about the language used to solicit funds.

[Torrey Pines High School principal Brett] Killeen said, “We have very clear guidelines on what we can and cannot do with respect to donations and fees. This is not a pay-to-play school or district, and if something has that appearance, then we address it.”

“The reality that we face in the public schools is the ability to fund those kinds of things that are important to families and communities,” [San Dieguito superintendent] Ken Noah said. “That’s a delicate balance to strike sometimes.”

Front page headlines:
- “Displeased with board leadership, teachers and parents respond to possibility of locating district office at Del Mar Hills”
- “Del Mar school district public hearings draw large turnout”
- “TPHS senior sentenced in connection with fatal rollover accident”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at:

Related posts:

  1. EDUCATION MATTERS: Parent fees for public education come under scrutiny
  2. Local schools ace STAR testing, earn top API’s
  3. Hills principal gets new local post
  4. EDUCATION MATTERS: Saying thanks and giving back
  5. Noah prepares to take district to ‘next level’

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Posted by Halie Johnson on Dec 31, 2009. Filed under Archives, Education Matters. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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