EDUCATION MATTERS: What went wrong?

The failings of the Del Mar school board

By Marsha Sutton

Contributor

The truth is unavoidable: The Del Mar Union School District's Board of Education is not doing a good job. You'd be hard-pressed at this point to find anyone who thinks they are. In fact, I'd guess that even the board members themselves would admit that their performance has been lackluster.

Whether through inability, indecisiveness or insufficient training and preparation, this board has failed to show proper leadership, vision and direction.

What went wrong?

In 2006, when candidates for the three open seats included what was known as "the slate" – consisting of incumbent board member Annette Easton who had already served one four-year term, and newcomers Steven McDowell and Katherine White – many in the community, including this columnist, were supportive.

We were surprised, yet elated, when all three were elected, with promises of change for the better. We looked forward to a new era of transparency and openness, a sweeping away of the climate of mistrust and fear – like opening the windows of a stuffy room to bring in some much needed fresh air and sunshine.

So we watched in 2007, hopeful. Time went by. Elation and hope turned to restlessness and a sense of unease by mid-2008. In 2009, with our apprehension fully realized, even former supporters were forced to admit that this board was not living up to its promises.

As the slate begins its fourth year in office, we can no longer say, "Just be patient and give them more time." Time is up, and the district is in complete disarray.

Campaign promises in 2006 of opposition to a rubber-stamp board have turned into petty micro-managing. And the big issues, where board members should be focused, go unaddressed, sidetracked by lengthy discussions that lead nowhere and serve little purpose.

Assurances that deals would not be made behind closed doors have translated into dozens of special meetings, some with incomprehensible agendas, on issues few can keep up with.

Yes, they've had a bit of bad luck. The state's economy plunged, property taxes that sustained programs in the district for so many years went south, finding a new district office became an urgent priority, and political adversaries never really left the field.

Yet, all this could – and should – have been met with grim determination to find solutions through strong leadership and passion for a clearly defined mission.

Sadly, there has been no vision. There has been no leadership, and there has been no strength of purpose – nothing to unite an easily agitated community that was initially ready to give this board a chance.

Conditions have been trying for even cohesive school boards. Yet some have set examples of ways to face economic hardship and weather the storm with fortitude and optimism. Neighboring districts like Solana Beach and San Dieguito benefit from strong school boards with effective staff, working together to continue the focus on student achievement in the midst of financial distress.

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