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Education Matters: Firing of Del Mar principal ignites a firestorm

If the purpose of the parade of principals was to generate sympathy for Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Holly McClurg with their orchestrated performance, it backfired spectacularly.

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

During public comments at the April 27 school board meeting, seven of the eight DMUSD principals (the new principal just assigned to Del Mar Heights School did not speak) gushed about the collaborative approach of McClurg, who was criticized at last month’s board meeting for an autocratic, top-down management style.

Each principal spoke similarly about McClurg’s inclusive style and praised her for her willingness to consider varied viewpoints.

Instead, what they did was prove just the opposite, that teachers are not recognized as professionals and are being ignored. The principals are either oblivious to or deliberately dismissing teacher concerns.

Parent Chelsea Ziskin said it best during public comment. “The comments from the principals only show how completely out of touch they are with the climate of the teachers at their schools,” she said.

As one after another expressed their admiration for McClurg, the speeches by principals became embarrassing. It’s clear they know who signs their paychecks.

After each principal spoke, the silence in the room was deafening. Contrast that to the loud applause and cheers that erupted when speakers criticized McClurg and her staff.

Perhaps the loudest applause followed a speech at the April board meeting by former Del Mar Heights principal Jason Soileau, whose sudden departure in March was the catalyst for the airing of grievances.

Soileau presented his version of what happened, citing a letter of review to him from McClurg, written July 31, 2021.

“The accomplishments you have made as principal of Del Mar Heights School during the 2020-2021 school year have been outstanding!” McClurg wrote. “Your leadership led to a sense of confidence and reassurance for your entire community in this very unique year.”

McClurg’s letter, two single-spaced pages of glowing praise for Soileau’s performance, spoke of his positive outlook, “huge heart” and impact on school culture.

“You embrace our role in helping young children develop as kind and compassionate individuals,” she wrote.

The praise goes on and on, concluding with, “This past year shined a spotlight on your positive and optimistic leadership … You impacted the lives of children and adults in ways that will last a lifetime.”

But in February 2022, Soileau was told by DMUSD’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ryan Stanley that he would no longer be Heights principal at the end of the year and that he could either resign or be assigned to teach in a classroom.

Soileau felt a demotion after being a principal for so long was not a viable option, so he was forced to resign.

“There was never anything in writing about inadequate performance,” Soileau said. When he met with McClurg, he said all she told him was that “she needed the right people in the right place at the right time.”

A career educator

Soileau was motivated to speak out to make sure no one thought he left by choice.

“When I read in the paper that ‘Jason chose to leave,’ I couldn’t be quiet knowing that one of my students would read that and think I just up and left,” he said. “The timing in leaving was mine, but the choice wasn’t.”

The full quote was from the April 14 Education Matters column which read: “McClurg said Soileau wasn’t dismissed, but rather he chose to resign.”

When he finished speaking the raucous applause was punctuated by cries of “We love you, Jason” and “We want you back.”

Parent Clayton Sheffrey said, “We need real answers as to why principal Soileau quit.”

Heights parent Nick Oesch told the board and McClurg that it was “a huge miscalculation to assume the parents would accept an explanation that was disingenuous at best … It seems to be part of a broader pattern.”

Former Heights parent Kimberly Jackson said she was there to support Soileau and the teachers.

“We want transparency as to why Jason Soileau’s contract was not renewed,” she said. “He was the best thing that happened after our beloved Mrs. Wardlow retired. Kids, parents and staff loved Jason.”

Heights veteran kindergarten teacher Gina Vargus called Soileau a career educator.

“He is smart, kind and dedicated,” she said. “He loved the kids, families and teachers at the Heights. We thrived under the most difficult situations with him at the helm and then suddenly he was gone. He was deemed ‘not a good fit.’

“The teachers at the Heights are not OK. We have welcomed our new principal. We will help her in any way we can. We continue to give our all to the students we love and the families who count on us.

“But we are left with a hole in our heart and the knowledge that people are expendable.”

Soileau, now principal at Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, told me last month that he was speaking with legal counsel about how to proceed.

Not a good fit

“What started out as justice for Jason has gotten so much bigger,” Ziskin said, referring to an outpouring of complaints simmering for years from teachers district-wide.

“You’re not a good fit” seems to be the catch-all phrase used for many dismissed DMUSD staff.

Summer Wyman, who worked in the district from 2015 to 2020 as an art specialist, said she was unexpectedly informed in 2020 that her contract would not be renewed.

Wyman, who was unable to attend the April board meeting, had her speech read by Del Mar Heights P.E. teacher Ian Phillip.

“They informed me I was ‘no longer a fit’ [despite] up to and including the 2020 school year [when] I had nothing but positive reviews in my file,” Wyman wrote. “I never had an indication that I was doing anything other than exemplary work.”

Teachers working under a temporary contract, as many “enrichment” specialists are, can be fired at will. Even so, Wyman said it was wrongful termination and decided to tell her story to give support to other DMUSD staff members who have suffered similar fates.

“I have since gotten over the deep personal and professional damage my wrongful termination inflicted on me,” she wrote.

“I am sharing my experience because it seems to corroborate a pattern of behavior [and] because it may help make positive change that will benefit teachers, students and the Del Mar Union community.”

Vacuum of voices

Most of the speakers at the April board meeting, besides the seven principals, spoke about the need for more sunshine on the inner workings of the district’s hiring and firing practices and the negative effect it’s having on the community.

Marium Mizal, a speech and language pathologist at DMUSD’s Early Childhood Development Center, said, “We are hemorrhaging hope [and] we are at a critical point. Nothing is invented in a vacuum of voices.”

Kevin Cunha, president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, asked that an agenda item be added to the next board meeting “to discuss ways to collect authentic, honest and valid feedback that can help guide your next steps.”

Advocating for an open discussion and review of teacher satisfaction levels, Cunha said the teachers “love our students, our schools, and our community. … We want to make it as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside.”

A 2019 climate survey conducted by the DMUSD teachers union showed widespread teacher dissatisfaction with the top administration for not respecting educators and excluding them from key decision-making processes, but little change came about as a result of the survey.

Several parents and speakers requested a formal independent review, but the administration has so far not committed to conduct a survey that might reflect poorly on the climate in the district.

Said Carmel Del Mar School veteran teacher David Skinner, “I am so grateful for parents who are willing to speak on behalf of teachers. It means a lot.”

“We are grateful to you for your support,” Cunha said, of the parents. “We have tried in many ways at many times to be heard. We appreciate that you are listening.”

Many speakers addressed the inadequate support from the district for special education students and the myriad of problems in the special education department.

These concerns overlap with broader district-wide discontent but encompass a far wider range of problems. It’s been described by some as a meltdown in the special education department.

A common strategy for school districts under fire is to simply wait it out and hope all will blow over eventually. This usually works.

But something tells me that the determination of Del Mar’s parents and teachers who refuse to be silenced isn’t dissipating quickly or easily.

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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