Del Mar school board strikes a blow against kids

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Trustees for the Del Mar Union School District voted last week to cancel a fully funded Spanish program that was up and running, loved by students, and taught by a popular teacher they threw out the door mid-year. Kids first, huh?

The vote was 4 to 1. At least trustee Doug Perkins, the lone dissenter, had the sense to realize that cutting a successful program halfway into the school year was clearly a bad move.

But the others … Are they so caught up in legal wrangling and policy guidelines that they can’t see the forest for the trees?

According to DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody, the school board had the power to sustain the Spanish program at Del Mar Heights School for the rest of the year. Board members only had to allow the Heights to continue to employ Spanish teacher Mary Zobell, whose contract was set to expire on Jan. 20.

“The board has the option if they so choose … to hire Mary as a temporary employee through the end of the year and continue the program,” Peabody said in an interview before the Jan. 18 board meeting.

Instead, four board members, relying on legal technicalities and a narrow interpretation of arbitrary district guidelines, resorted to a disgraceful display of complete disregard for student interests.

The item on the agenda listed Zobell as one of six contractor agreements needing board approval. “The superintendent recommends board approval/ratification of site performance agreements,” read the summary for all six.

Peabody acknowledged that her employment was technically out of compliance with labor laws, and that he mistakenly approved her contract for the first half of this year. Even so, he appeared to support the continuation of the Spanish program, in both his written recommendation to the board and in his interview with me.

“They were just trying to be creative and I understand that,” said Peabody of the Heights, calling the school’s action an “error of exuberance.”

Heights principal Wendy Wardlow appreciated Peabody’s support for her school’s efforts to find creative ways to offer special programming. Although she acknowledged that the arrangement was problematic and said it was an inadvertent mistake, she held out hope that the school board would find a way to approve the agreement, perhaps as a pilot program as other schools in the district have.

But trustees rejected the contract, even though they had the authority to let it continue.

The issue, as Peabody explained, concerned Zobell’s history with the district as a former employee, as well as the role of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation in funding salaries for teachers of non-core, Extended Studies Curriculum subjects.

Zobell’s salary this year was funded by the Heights PTA through private donations directly to the school. Normally, PTAs fund programs, not salaries. The item before the board Jan. 18 was to approve $15,000 for Zobell for the period of Jan. 23 through the end of the school year. This was the second half of a one-year contract, one that classified her as an independent contractor.

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