Spanish program ends at Del Mar Heights school after board vote

The Jan. 18 school board meeting drew a large crowd. Photo/Bill Morris
The Jan. 18 school board meeting drew a large crowd. Photo/Bill Morris

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Heights School Spanish program ended Jan. 20, following a Del Mar School District board vote of 4-1 on Jan. 18.

The underlying issue the decision was based on was the role PTA (parent-teacher association) fundraising plays versus Del Mar Schools Education Foundation fundraising.

Simply put: According to district rules, people come from the foundation, programs come from the PTA.

The board was placed in a difficult position as Del Mar Heights parents donated more than $15,000 with the intent of paying for a Spanish teacher, which was perceived by the board to be a consultant, not a teacher. District superintendent Jim Peabody admitted “full blame” in thinking that it was an after-school Spanish program, as it had been the previous year, not a class that would be taught during school hours.

As a result of the board’s approval of what they thought was just a consultant, Mary Zobell has been teaching Spanish at the Heights since the beginning of the school year. Now, per the board’s vote not to approve her performance agreement, the Heights Spanish program ended on Jan. 20.

Peabody said it is inappropriate for an independent contractor or “professional expert” to act as an employee and the Spanish teacher did not meet IRS requirements as a consultant.

The vote was painful, most noticeably for board president Scott Wooden, and the trustees tried to find some way to be able to keep the program or save it from being cut mid-year. The only option would be to offer a contract, but as trustee Doug Rafner pointed out, that would not be fair to the other schools.

“The message that is sent to other schools in the district is that to get funding, just give to the PTA and you can get whatever you want. That’s not how things can happen. This employee wasn’t brought in through the front door. ‘Professional expert’ doesn’t tell me she’s a teacher,” said Rafner. “We look like we have egg on our face and we look silly for turning away a fully-funded program but our obligation has to be to the entire district.”

Trustee Doug Perkins was the sole vote in support of renewing the performance agreement.

“This would be an easier decision to make if this was at the beginning or end of the school year,” Perkins said, noting that because of the misunderstanding and that the students have had Spanish for half of the year, they should work on finding a way to fix the problem instead of cutting the program.

The Heights Spanish program can still be allowed at the school but only during after- school hours, as an enrichment program.

Peabody reported having received 54 emails and one letter from parents on the subject, including two emails from Del Mar Hills parents addressing a rumor that they caused the Heights program to be cancelled.

“I can assure everyone that’s not the case,” Peabody said. “It was a request from the board to get an update on PTA and DMSEF fundraising, and the Spanish performance agreement was terminating on Jan. 20 and the board was required to approve a new one.”

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