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San Dieguito school board fires superintendent

San Dieguito Union High School District residents holding signs with different opinions on Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward.
San Dieguito Union High School District residents have been divided over whether to fire or reinstate Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward for months following a controversial comment she made linking Asian student academic performance to an influx of wealthy Chinese immigrant families. Parties with differing opinions held signs announcing their convictions at a board meeting on May 19.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cheryl James-Ward’s attorney says she plans to sue the district alleging retaliation

The San Dieguito Union High School District Board voted quietly Sunday, June 26, to fire Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward after two and a half months of controversy surrounding comments she made linking Asian student academic performance to an influx of wealthy Chinese immigrant families.

The four-member board voted unanimously in a meeting Sunday evening to terminate James-Ward’s contract without cause effective Aug. 15. Trustee Michael Allman announced the decision after the board met in closed session for two and a half hours. None of the board members commented further on their decision before adjourning the meeting.

“The vote was unanimous and I wish Ms. Ward well,” Board President Maureen “Mo” Muir said in an email Monday, June 27. “It’s time for the district to move forward again.”

Trustees Allman, Katrina Young and Julie Bronstein declined to comment Monday.

James-Ward’s contract was set to expire in June 2025. Because she is being terminated without cause, her contract allows her to be paid a year’s salary as a buyout. She was being paid a $288,000 annual salary.

James-Ward could not be reached for comment.

Cheryl James-Ward
(Courtesy)

Sunday’s vote represents the latest development in a string of controversies to rock the San Dieguito district over the past two and a half years. In that time San Dieguito has cycled through four district leaders and has suffered infighting over issues ranging from redistricting to reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

James-Ward made her comments in April during a diversity, equity and inclusion board workshop after Allman asked about why the district’s Asian students were getting better grades than other student groups. James-Ward responded that Asian students do well in school because they are from wealthy families who recently emigrated from China.

James-Ward’s comments drew outrage from several Asian parents and community members who said the comments were racially insensitive and falsely implied that all Asian students are Chinese and wealthy. James-Ward also got heat for saying that her community of Carmel Valley “had a large influx of Chinese families moving in, sight unseen, into our homes,” a comment some said painted Chinese people as outsiders.

Some of the backlash against James-Ward came from Californians For Equal Rights Foundation, a local group that opposes school districts’ diversity and equity initiatives because the group claims such initiatives divide people by race. And some of James-Ward’s critics denied that socioeconomic status is associated with academic performance, even though it is well-documented that higher-income families’ children tend to do better in school.

“Her inflammatory statement falsely associated academic success with family wealth and belittled the efforts of Asian students, while casting the Chinese-American community as perpetual outsiders,” said the Asian American Parent Association of San Diego, a nonprofit formed by parents who were critical of James-Ward, in a statement Monday.

James-Ward has since apologized for her comments but also said critics had taken her words out of context and used them to unfairly persecute her. Her attorney Josh Gruenberg has said he doesn’t believe her statements were offensive or inappropriate because socioeconomic status does play a role in student success.

James-Ward, who was hired in October, was the sole finalist for the superintendent job last year. She is the district’s first Black superintendent and has a long resume in education, having served as a principal, school district administrator and professor at San Diego State University.

She led San Diego State’s Chinese and American Educational Leadership Symposium and founded the university’s online master of arts program in educational leadership. Most recently she was the CEO of E3 Civic High charter school, which serves mostly low-income students and prepares them for college and careers.

In addition to working on programs connecting U.S. and Chinese educators at San Diego State, James-Ward has noted that both of her children speak Mandarin and her daughter will attend university in China this school year.

“My actions are in my opinion my greatest demonstration of my passion and love for Asian culture,” she said in a written statement prior to Sunday’s meeting.

Before she was fired, James-Ward said she believed board members were retaliating against her for filing a harassment complaint earlier this year against Allman, who had used profanity in text messages sent to her. She also accused Allman of creating a hostile work environment for women.

James-Ward has declined to comment on the other details of her complaint, which is under investigation.

In a recent interview with the Union-Tribune, Allman declined to discuss details of James-Ward’s complaint, but specifically denied the allegation that he created a hostile work environment.

Allman has also denied allegations that the move to place James-Ward on leave was done out of retaliation — noting that he was not the only board member to vote that way. He said he is confident he will be cleared of James-Ward’s accusations after the investigation concludes.

Gruenberg said Monday morning that James-Ward plans to sue the district.

“We find it interesting that the board voted to terminate her without cause. I think the board is going to have a hard time explaining that,” he said.

The fact that the school board’s vote was unanimous came as a shock to some of James-Ward’s supporters. Allman and Muir have tended to be more critical of the superintendent whereas Trustees Young and Bronstein have tended to be more supportive.

During the weeks she has been on leave, James-Ward has been quoted in news articles criticizing Allman and Muir, at one point calling the two of them “treacherous” and calling Allman a “master manipulator.” She said she thinks they wanted to fire her because she refused to do things they wanted her to do.

For example, in a June 9 op-ed article published in The San Diego Union-Tribune, James-Ward alleged that Muir had told her to fire the deputy superintendent and to fire a classified employee who signed a recall petition for Allman. Muir denied in an email earlier this month that she ever asked for anyone to be fired; Allman also has noted that it requires a majority of the board to fire employees.

“I think talking about personnel matters in a newspaper is inappropriate and unprofessional,” Muir added.

In a May 26 article published in the Falconer student newspaper at Torrey Pines High, James-Ward is quoted saying Allman used fake email aliases to harass her and other board members, a claim Allman has denied. She also claimed Allman asked the question about Asian students as a “trap” to get her out of the district, according to the article.

Allman has repeatedly denied this, saying he directed the question to the workshop moderator, not to James-Ward.

James-Ward also claims she is being retaliated against because she shared concerns from the San Diego County Office of Education about the board’s redistricting process, which the county office eventually took over. Allman, who did not find the county office’s concerns valid, has criticized James-Ward for how she handled redistricting.

James-Ward’s critics have said her accusations against Allman are deflections of blame and show a lack of accountability.

“She is a person with no integrity, no responsibility, no reliability,” said Tony Xu, a parent of a high school student in the district, during public comments at a May board meeting.

The news of her firing came as a shock to several of her supporters, who said James-Ward is highly qualified and has taken responsibility for her comments. They have said it’s harsh to punish James-Ward for making the comments during a diversity and equity workshop, which is about giving people a chance to overcome their biases.

“We need to learn how to counsel and engage those that may have conscious or unconscious biases, rather than cancel and terminate and create an environment that leaves no room for growth and learning,” said Mali Woods-Drake, founder of local group Encinitas 4 Equality, who has been one of the leading community members calling for James-Ward’s reinstatement.

Ayana Johnson, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Torrey Pines High School, said the news of James-Ward’s firing was “really upsetting.” Ayana, who is president of her school’s Black Student Union, said it was important for the district to have a Black woman superintendent to whom she and other students of color could relate. Ayana and others said James-Ward was the first San Dieguito superintendent to show students that she had interest in diversity and equity work.

“I’m just really disappointed in this district,” Ayana said. “This termination went by way too fast and I think it got completely taken out of hand.”

Woods-Drake said she worries about how the district will find a new qualified superintendent, given all the problems in San Dieguito.

“The district is going to be at a disadvantage for a while. I can’t imagine that there are many experienced, talented superintendents that would be interested in applying ... based on the dysfunction that is occurring,” she said.

Since April, Associate Superintendent of Business Services Tina Douglas has been acting as interim superintendent. In a letter to district families, she shared that she has agreed to stay on through June 30, 2023 in the interim role.

“This will allow the board to conduct a thorough search process with staff, student and community input and the hopes of a permanent superintendent in time for the start of school in the fall of 2023,” Douglas wrote. " In the coming months, the board will develop a timeline for the selection process.”

UT Community Press reporter Karen Billing contributed to this report.


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