Education Matters: How not to be a team player


Several years ago, I sat on a 20-member board and still recall one teachable moment.

Marsha Sutton

We came to an agenda item considered by the executive board to be noncontroversial. Yet I was uncomfortable with the action item and decided to speak against it, respectfully yet forcefully.

To my surprise, another board member agreed with my point of view. He was highly respected, but even his support did little to sway the opinions of other board members after arguments were presented counter to mine.

Spying an opening, I again offered my opinion on the matter, in more depth. A few minutes of debate resulted, and again the opposing side made its case and asked for approval.

Just as I was about to speak up a third time, my colleague who had given me his support put his hand on my arm and said softly, “I think you’ve made your point.”

I got the message and was quiet. The vote was called, with only two of us dissenting.

I was reminded of this incident while listening to San Dieguito Union High School District trustees at their Nov. 18 board meeting.

That agenda included two resolutions proposed by trustee Michael Allman, one condemning antisemitism and the other affirming the protection of all students against bullying and harassment.

Allman proposed the antisemitism resolution after receiving a letter signed by 250 Jewish San Dieguito students who detailed having experienced antisemitic actions or words at their schools.

The board first heard from 10 speakers who all affirmed the need for the resolution condemning antisemitism – one saying “it’s downright dangerous to be a Jew in this country” – and then trustees settled into an unnecessarily long debate.

After including minor additions and changes, the discussion turned to anti-Zionist and anti-Israel rhetoric, touched upon when speaker Mitch Danzig said such an inclusion in the resolution was needed because “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

A lengthy discussion on how to incorporate an anti-Israel reference was heading nowhere until SDUHSD Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward saved the day by suggesting the board adopt the same sentence in San Diego Unified School District’s recently approved resolution on antisemitism, which was accepted by Allman.

The added sentence states that “anti-Zionism and anti-Israel bias can descend into antisemitism when they promote demonization and discriminatory double standards.”

Just when everyone seemed ready to vote, trustee Katrina Young hesitated. Identifying herself as a Christian cisgender woman, Young said she didn’t feel adequately educated on the matter, saying the resolution was needed but wanted to wait to “get it right.”

Allman objected, saying he had “strong feelings” that the resolution should pass that day, calling it “a very strong signal to our community that we do not accept antisemitism in any form.”

Young continued to ask for a delay and made her point repeatedly, until at last board president Mo Muir called for the vote, which passed 4-0-1, Young abstaining. The optics didn’t look good.

Later, I asked her why she abstained, and in a lengthy email she said her concern centered around the anti-Zionism language.

“I know enough about this issue to also know that ‘anti-Zionism’ means different things to different people,” Young said. “It is a very emotional issue with deep religious and even political importance.

“Out of deep respect to the Jewish faith and an earnest attempt to make sure that I support all members of that community, I simply wanted more time to make sure our language accomplished our goal.

“If my abstention hurt, confused or offended anyone, I am deeply sorry. As I tried to emphasize in my deliberations, I stand with the Jewish community and any group of individuals, large or small, faced with injustice and/or harm.”

Emphasizing the need for just such a resolution, barely two weeks later swastikas were found scrawled on a boys’ bathroom wall at Torrey Pines High School.

“The swastika continues to serve as one of the most significant and notorious symbols of hate, antisemitism and white supremacy today,” said Tammy Gillies, regional director of San Diego’s Anti-Defamation League, in a public statement. “This type of hateful behavior will not be tolerated in our community.”

James-Ward also forcefully condemned the swastikas and reaffirmed the district’s commitment to eradicate antisemitism in the district.

Second resolution

The board then moved to the second resolution “affirming the protection of students against discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying.”

Young said the wording was “an excellent start” but wanted to include the words “systemic inequity” as another example of discrimination and harassment.

“People can be discriminated against by not having things offered equally,” Young said. “They’re discriminated against if they’re not given the same opportunity as anyone else.”

Allman said his resolution was focused on reporting harassment or discrimination, not systemic inequity.

Once again, James-Ward came to the rescue, saying anyone bullied or harassed for any reason, including inequity, is already included in the resolution’s wording.

But Young wouldn’t let it go, repeatedly pressing her same point.

Deciding there had been enough discussion, Muir at last called for the vote. But when her name was called, Young again equivocated.

“I feel like I got pushed into a corner with my last vote and I don’t want to be pushed into that corner again,” Young said. She finally voted yes, after an exasperated Allman asked whether they were still debating or finally voting.

“We’ve heard what you’ve had to say; you have had time to talk to staff,” Muir said to Young. “When it’s the same argument over and over and over again without any progress, then as the board president I have to decide everyone’s had their say and now it’s time to vote.”

Muir was right to call the vote. In fact if anything, she let the debate go on too long.

Young was clearly passionate about her views, and she gave it her best shot but didn’t carry the day. Eventually, the proper action for a dissenting board member is to sit back and accept that it is time to vote.

To sit on a board means, yes, you make your case and try to be as convincing and respectful as possible. But at some point, when your repeated pronouncements become tiresome, that’s enough.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at