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Column/Opinion-- Education Matters: One step too far

It takes courage to face down the people in charge of your children’s education.

Marsha Sutton

But at some point, patience runs out for parents, and speaking up becomes a matter of principle – and, if you’ll pardon the pun, a matter of principal.

The tipping point for many parents whose kids attend Del Mar Heights Elementary School in the Del Mar Union School District was the release of the school’s highly respected principal Jason Soileau, who was notified March 10 that continued employment in his current position was no longer an option.

After receiving the news, Soileau made March 11 his last day, shocking a devoted community with the sudden announcement.

Soileau, now principal at Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, wrote in an email the following when I asked him if he would comment on his sudden departure: “Thanks for reaching out. I will let you know that I love the staff, students, and community of Del Mar Heights, and this isn’t how I saw my time ending. I am in touch with legal, so I really can’t comment at this time.”

DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg said Soileau wasn’t dismissed, but rather he chose to resign.

Not many parents or teachers believe this to be the whole story.

So, at the district’s March 16 school board meeting, parents spoke up in protest and risked retribution (which is real as most everyone knows, even though district personnel vehemently deny it).

Issues raised went far beyond the Del Mar Heights community.

Parents at the board meeting criticized the district administration’s top-down management style that they say teachers have complained about for years, which has affected schools district-wide.

Chelsea Ziskin, a parent in the district, said it was time to shine a light on McClurg’s leadership style, which she said was one of fear and intimidation. “If you don’t drink the Holly Kool-Aid, you’re fired,” she said, charging that teachers are afraid.

“I think you under-estimated how much Jason Soileau was loved,” Ziskin said. “No one thinks Mr. Soileau left because he wanted to.”

Jason Soileau, said parent Jesse Barrick, has been one of the consistent elements holding the community together during difficult times.

Those difficult times included the pandemic, a lingering lawsuit over the DM Heights rebuild project, and the reassignment of Heights students into two other Del Mar schools after the Heights was closed for reconstruction.

“There had better be a good reason to get rid of a well-liked principal,” Barrick said, asking McClurg what she can do to rebuild trust.

Christina Gremel, a Del Mar parent and UCSD professor, called for an independent evaluation of the district that reports back to the board “because you have a community really riled up.”

“We teach our children to speak up when they see injustice, and today I feel I must do the same,” said Heights parent Sharon Franke. Asking for a third-party review of teacher morale, she said, “Our teachers deserve a better working environment.”

“You have inflicted unnecessary pain on our Del Mar Heights family,” said parent Aunalori Honeycutt-Taylor, who asked for an independent review of the work environment, as “a minimally necessary step.”

In an email, Honeycutt-Taylor said, “Teachers and other staff have shared their fear for their jobs. This is not how a district should be run. There needs to be transparency, accountability, and the school board should be providing such oversight. We need to get involved to ensure this happens.”

A teacher survey

It turns out there was a teacher survey, done in 2019 just before the pandemic, that has begun circulating recently. And, given the current condition, it would seem the conclusions are still applicable.

The stated objective was to communicate “issues negatively impacting the climate of our school district” and relay them to district administration and the governing board.

With about two-thirds of teachers and other certificated staff participating, the survey was shared at the time with the superintendent and board members – with little interest or reaction, say those involved.

Some of the highlights (I omitted those who had no strong feelings one way or the other):

-- Teachers have close working relationships with each other: 75% agree, 7.2% disagree

-- District administrators want the district to thrive: 67.2% agree, 12.7% disagree

-- District administration understands and promotes teacher agency: 10% agree, 75.5% disagree

[To define teacher agency, the survey included these definitions: Lacking teacher agency is the assumption that the source of expertise comes from outside the school, and promoting teacher agency looks internally first for the source of expertise to solve problems.]

-- School administrators involve teachers in decision-making and problem-solving: 18.8% agree, 65.6 % disagree

-- District administration uses empathy in decision-making: 6.7% agree, 77.2% disagree

-- I am satisfied with opportunities for professional growth: 32.2% agree, 42.8% disagree

-- District administration involves teachers in planning professional development activities: 10.5% agree, 73.9% disagree

-- District administration cares about my emotional wellbeing: 12.8% agree, 71.1% disagree

-- The amount of time outside of contract hours it takes to fulfill my responsibilities is reasonable: 12.2% agree, 68.3% disagree

-- Teachers are treated and respected as educational professionals: 17.8% agree, 66.7% disagree

-- The school district provides teachers with enough time to effectively work together and collaborate: 8.3% agree, 81.6% disagree

-- I have all the curriculum I need to do my job well: 16.6% agree, 62.2% disagree

-- I spend much of my planning time developing my own curriculum: 71.1% agree, 11.1% disagree

The survey also included comments representative of the majority of respondents.

Positive morale factors included working with talented and supportive colleagues daily, and that teachers are dedicated and skillful.

The negative morale factors were extensive:

-- Teacher voices are not sought out or are rejected or ignored.

-- Empathy. I hear the word expressed through weekly district messages, but when we are dictated about how we need to teach and what we need to have on our walls does not show empathy.

-- Many of us have been teaching for 20-plus years. We enjoy learning new teaching ideologies, but we are also experts and should be able to have a voice in what our classroom looks like and feels like.

-- Let me do what I am so good at, what I am so passionate about. … Let me teach kids. I will not let you down because I will not let my students down.

-- We don’t have a seat at the table. Decisions are made without asking teachers and without teacher input. It does not feel as if we are valued; it feels that behind closed doors teachers are labeled as complainers and negative and incompetent.

-- We need teacher voices in how initiatives are rolled out.

The conclusion of the climate survey was the following: “We have expressed a need for improvements in the areas of shared vision, shared decision-making, teacher agency, and the respect for all persons working in our district.”

No collaboration

Tenured teachers can’t be fired just for speaking out, but the district can make life difficult by observing teachers and claiming they don’t like how they’re treating the students. Or they can be transferred to another school or grade level.

McClurg’s management style has often been described as autocratic and top-down – not collaborative and with little opportunity for dialogue, input or joint decision-making.

That controlling leadership style seemed to have worked well during the pandemic, which closed almost all public schools except in Del Mar.

But now that schools are moving past that and are gradually returning to normal, what was normal before in the district is being questioned.

Said 28-year Del Mar veteran teacher David Skinner, “The autocratic style of management was problematic for us before the pandemic as well. That’s what prompted the survey in the first place.”

“We want to get back to what we teachers would like to see in a school – a collaborative, warm, mutually supportive environment,” he said.

To those parents asking for an independent review of teacher morale, Skinner said, “We have done climate surveys in the past, and a good start would be looking at the one that was already done.”

Teachers, he said, were very encouraged by the parents speaking up to support them.

Strong advocate for staff

The release of Jason Soileau was perhaps one step too far.

“Jason stood up for his community during a difficult time when his students were split between two schools,” Skinner said. “Heights teachers absolutely adored him, and he was a strong advocate for them and the students.”

I asked Holly McClurg for her response to the parent comments at the March 16 board meeting about the district’s climate and culture, and her management style.

“I understand that families came to express their worries about personnel changes at their school, and because we cannot discuss personnel matters in public this can be frustrating,” she said.

“That said, I am glad to see the school community moving forward positively and extending a warm welcome to Ms. Peirson [the replacement principal for Soileau].

“All signs are that the school community is working collaboratively and with a spirit of excellent service to students.”

I also asked DMUSD board president Erica Halpern for her comments and reaction.

“Thanks for reaching out,” Halpern wrote in an email. “The board is committed to ensuring input and engagement from teachers, staff, parents, kids and all stakeholders who want to make sure our district is operating at the highest standards.

“I am looking forward to the next board meeting when we will begin discussing the five-year strategic planning process to replace the expiring District Design 2022. I hope that will be a good opportunity to explore the many available vehicles and strategies for generating participation and authentic engagement that will make a successful plan possible.”

“As you know,” she added, “the board provides the superintendent with a confidential review annually at the end of every school year.”

The next board meeting is April 27. More to come.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

Marsha Sutton is a columnist and presents her opinion. If you disagree or agree with her opinion, we’d like to hear from you. Email your comment to editor@delmartimes.net.

Column: Combines reporting, storytelling and commentary to make a point. Unlike reporters, columnists are allowed to include their opinions. Columnists in the Union-Tribune Community Press are identified clearly to set them apart from news reporters.


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