Del Mar Heights community questions principal switch

A full board room at Del Mar Union School District's March 16 meeting.
(Karen Billing)

A leadership change at Del Mar Heights School has stirred up questions about the Del Mar Union School District’s staffing processes and teacher morale overall, with some parents pointing to a “toxic work environment” of fear and distrust.

After over three years at Del Mar Heights School, Principal Jason Soileau recently accepted a new principal position in the Chula Vista School District at Camarena Elementary School.

Some parents said they were “blindsided” when they received notice on March 10 that Soileau’s last day would be Friday, March 11 and that his replacement had already been selected. Parents said they were floored, teachers were left speechless and children were crushed and in tears— that Friday was a very sad day on campus.

Soileau was a well-liked principal, “beloved by the community”, described as a “constant source of positivity during a tumultuous two years”, an “ally to everyone on campus” and someone who truly loved children and advocated for all, particularly those with special needs.

Parent Sharon Franke said many Heights parents have been working hand in hand with the district over the last two years to help fight the legal challenges over the school rebuild and now it feels like that trust has been broken.

“Just as we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re dealt a blow of losing our principal,” said Franke, one of many Heights parents who filled the board room on March 16. “Why would the glue that held our displaced school community together choose to leave when he was just last month making plans on our return to Del Mar Heights post-rebuild? To have Jason removed at this point has left us feeling gutted.”

The abrupt departure had some parents questioning the real reason for Soileau’s leaving the Heights, whether he chose to go or was instead told he would be demoted or reassigned within the district, which has occurred at other schools. Parent Chelsea Ziskin said the vague correspondence from the district put the community in the position where everyone was asking: “What happened?”

“And everyone started talking,” Ziskin said.

Over the weekend, there was a lot of chatter and parents said they were surprised by what they heard: that teacher morale is extremely low, that teachers are feeling micromanaged, are fearful of the district administration and don’t voice their concerns due to fear of retaliation.

Parent Esther Rubio-Sheffrey said it pained her to believe what she was hearing because she loves the school and the community. Many parents’ comments were prefaced by gratitude for the district’s efforts to keep kids in school during the pandemic and for finally breaking ground last week on the new Heights but they felt this decision was wrong and they were looking for solutions and ways to take better care of teachers.

“Two years ago right around the same time we were dealing with the sudden reality of having our children home 24/7. All across the world people couldn’t lavish enough praise on teachers. Yet what I have heard the last few days is our district has perpetuated a culture of fear that leaves our teachers feeling that if they don’t toe the line, they will be the next to go,” Rubio-Sheffrey said. “We need to know what that line is.”

At the March 16 meeting, several parents asked for an independent investigation that reports back to the board about the health of the district as well as an anonymous survey of teachers to ensure they have a positive work culture.

From a district standpoint, DMUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ryan Stanley said there was not much to say regarding the principal change.

“When it comes to employment-related matters, the vast majority of decisions are confidential,” Stanley said. “As a district, we are actually prohibited from being able to disclose publicly any reasons that exist behind personnel decisions.”

Heights parent Christina Gremel said she understood that not every detail of HR decisions can be made public but the lack of transparency is troubling to a lot of people. She said if possible the district could lay out a framework that shows how transfers and displacements are decided and reasons why principals are moved.

“Please push for transparency because you have a community really riled up and our perception is that teachers are operating in a culture of fear,” Gremel said.

In response to some of the tough criticisms heard that night, Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district puts its heart and soul into doing what’s best for children and that she has extreme gratitude for every teacher she is fortunate to work with every day.

New Del Mar Heights principal Jenny Peirson

New Heights principal selected
At the March 16 meeting, the district introduced Jenny Peirson as the new principal for Del Mar Heights. Her first day on the job will be Monday, March 28.

Peirson is a principal, assistant principal and former second, fourth and fifth grade teacher from the Vista Unified School District. She was described as having a warm way with children and a love for teaching.

Peirson thanked the board for the opportunity to serve the Del Mar community.

“I am so excited to get to know students, parents and the staff at Del Mar Heights,” said Peirson, who said she had already had the opportunity to meet many of the teachers: “They are such an exceptional group of educators and I’m so honored to be joining such a great team.”