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.”
Upon hearing that their program could be cut, a large crowd of Del Mar Heights parents came to the meeting in support of Spanish and their school’s goal to create a global village.
Parents told stories of how much their children loved Spanish and were sad to see it go—Tamar Gollan said her daughter almost started to cry when told the program would no longer be available.
Parents said that Spanish was more than just learning a second language; it had given their children an appreciation for a culture that is very engrained in the San Diego community. Parents told anecdotes of students recognizing Spanish art and styles, coming home singing Spanish songs and speaking the language with a fine-tuned accent.
“This isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ program, I think it can be a very interesting opportunity for our students in this state,” said parent Jennifer Crittendon, noting over 30 percent of the population speaks Spanish in their home and the state’s Hispanic population is 40 percent and growing.
Parent Katherine White lamented some of the programs besides Spanish that the district has lost, such as instrumental bands.
“It’s time to stop losing programs,” White said “We need to find a way to make this all work…We’re a great district but we can be greater.”
Wooden said that while it’s true that the district has lost some programs, it’s because of the foundation that they have been able to keep some programs that other schools “can’t even dream about having,” such as music and art.
Since 2009, the district has operated on the model that DMSEF monies come in and are allocated throughout the district schools. Each school site makes the decision on how to split up the money between music/art, PE, science and technology. Spanish used to be a part of ESC but the board decided to remove it in 2009.
“Every school in 2009 offered Spanish and we did away with Spanish as ESC,” said Comischell Rodriguez. “We are not saying goodbye to Spanish tonight.”
Rodriguez said she was insulted to be in this position because it was made very clear to the principals what the formula was. She recalled PE teachers who attempted to save their jobs when their ESC time was reduced in 2009 and parents weren’t able to fund their contracts or allow them to come back.
“There’s egg on the district’s face because we have to abide by the law and it doesn’t feel good at all,” Rodriguez said.
Trustee Doug Perkins wondered whether it still made sense for the district to operate under those same foundation guidelines for parity.
“I’m looking at a three-year-old policy and seeing if there’s a better way to do it and I think there is. I fear that the equity model loses ground to a site-based model,” Perkins said, expressing an idea about incentivizing schools to increase giving and once they hit that incentive they could take site-based revenue for something additional. “It’s sad that we’re going backward and eliminating programs.”
Trustee Kristin Gibson agreed that the foundation policy may deserve a fresh look but said that for now, the board couldn’t operate outside the policies until they officially changed them.