Parents show support for Del Mar teachers at meeting

A crowd of teachers and parents at the April 27 DMUSD meeting
(Karen Billing)

Former Del Mar Heights principal speaks out


In the Del Mar Union School District, parents are standing up for their teachers.

The replacement of Del Mar Heights Principal Jason Soileau continues to heighten awareness about the district culture and work environment for teachers and spearhead calls for change. Over the last month, parents distributed copies of a 2019 teacher survey that painted a pre-pandemic picture of dissatisfaction in which only 18% of teachers felt they were respected as educational professionals and only 12% believed that the district administration cares about their emotional wellbeing.

Both parents and teachers packed into the DMUSD board meeting room on April 27, speaking up and asking the board to act, calling for an independent review of the climate, an independent investigation of personnel practices and to address issues the district is facing in a collaborative, transparent and meaningful way.

“It started out as justice for Jason, it has grown into something much bigger,” said Del Mar Heights parent Chelsea Ziskin.

Kevin Cunha, president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, said his role is often about finding compromises between both sides in an effort to solve problems collaboratively but in light of recent events and member feedback, it was time for him to “pick a lane”. He asked the board to add an agenda item at a future meeting to discuss ways to collect authentic feedback that can guide the district’s next steps as they face a difficult but not new set of problems.

“We are the teachers of Del Mar, we are the best at what we do and we love our students, schools and community,” said Cunha. “We are the heart and soul of this district and we want to make it as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.”

Soileau was in attendance at the April 27 meeting and during public comment, said he came to share his story, to right a wrong and clear his name: He didn’t want his students to believe that he chose to leave.

Heights parents said they were shocked when they received notice on March 10 that Soileau’s last day would be March 11 and that his replacement had already been selected. Soileau revealed that his replacement had been set in motion over a month before when on Feb. 2 Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ryan Stanley told him that at the end of school year he would no longer be principal at the Heights.

“I was given two options: Resign or be reassigned. There was never anything in writing about inadequate performance,” he said.

In October, he had been given two pages of negative comments from a school walkthrough that the school was not focusing enough on district curriculum and in January he was visited about instructional concerns but he said nothing specific was given in writing.

He said Superintendent Holly McClurg’s last evaluation of him was positive, stating that his accomplishments made as principal were “outstanding”, including navigating two satellite campuses during the Heights rebuild, supporting staff and instruction practices, and embracing the learning and pedagogy of the district.

Shortly after he was told he was being replaced he said he met with McClurg. “I told her after 10 years of being an amazing principal I would not go back into a classroom so my only option was to resign, even though I still don’t know why,”

Soileau said he was told that McClurg needed “the right people in the right place at the right time.” Although he believed himself to be the right person for the Heights, he is now the principal at Camarena Elementary School in El Cajon.

In addition to the 2019 teacher survey, an anonymous group also circulated a March 2022 survey of special education teachers which revealed low morale, staff feeling overworked and that they have concerns about “unethical and illegal” practices. Per the survey 87% said they felt fear of retaliation for speaking up regarding issues related to special education, their workload and the wellbeing and safety of students. Fourteen of the 40 special education teachers surveyed said they were looking for another job.

Marium Mizal, a district speech language pathologist, said the climate of the workplace is foundational to the social, emotional and educational wellbeing of the children and the district needs radical change.

“We are hemorrhaging hope, and innovative principals and educators are shutting down and leaving in larger numbers than ever,” Mizal said. “This is a crying shame.”

Seven school principals also spoke at the meeting, in support of McClurg’s leadership. her care for children and a district climate they are grateful to be in: “There’s no place I’d rather be,” said Ocean Air Principal Krista Berntsen.

“I hope as critical thinkers we are wary when we hear or read statements like ‘everyone feels’ or everyone thinks’. I’m eager to speak for myself and share why working in Del Mar and with Dr. McClurg has been a tremendous source of pride and joy in my life,” said Sage Canyon Principal Alison Fieberg.

While the other 16 speakers received applause, the room was silent after each principal spoke.

During board member comments, Trustee Doug Rafner said he believed that it’s important to evaluate the climate in any workplace and suggested incorporating an independent survey into the upcoming work of developing the district’s new strategic plan. Work on the strategic plan will include focus groups and opportunities for input and open dialogues, leading up to board approval of the new plan in spring 2023.

Trustee Scott Wooden said he would like to see the survey be a professional one, making sure they are getting good data in order to be able to know what to focus on and also be able to revisit it to see if they have made progress over time.

“I want to have an honest assessment and understand what’s truly going on,” said Trustee Gee Wah Mok in support of an independent survey. “As a board, we need to understand that. To look beyond that I think is a dereliction of our duty.”