In my 18 years covering local school districts, never do I remember a school board member filling out a speaker slip and leaving the dais to stand at the public lectern to address the board as a private citizen.
Yet outgoing San Dieguito Union High School District trustee Barbara Groth, who was defeated this month in her run for a fifth term, did just that.
But sadly, instead of leaving board members and the public infused with warm memories of her long list of impressive contributions to the school district she loves, Groth capped an otherwise illustrious career that spanned 16 years as a San Dieguito trustee with a vindictive attack against a fellow board member and fear-laced warnings for the future.
She also expressed regret that fellow board member Amy Herman (just re-elected to her second term) had to endure her first four years with a trustee not always in sync with the board majority. That reference was to John Salazar, who walked out of the meeting in disgust halfway through Groth’s remarks.
Groth’s performance was baffling – hardly the gracious exit one would expect from someone so esteemed and well-regarded in the community who has accomplished so much for the district over the years.
Her speech came at the end of the Nov. 13 board meeting, during the time on the agenda for public comment.
She began by stating her name and address, standard procedure for all public speakers. She then referenced having had “a rocky start” with fellow board member Joyce Dalessandro, who is in the middle of her fifth term on the board – to which Dalessandro replied with a laugh, “We sure did.”
She described special memorable experiences she’s had on the board, many with Dalessandro by her side, and how fortunate she’s been to serve as “part of a team that’s led our district to unprecedented levels of achievement during a time of horrific underfunding of schools.”
All good so far. But then what began as a fond farewell descended into an unwarranted condemnation of Salazar and newly elected board member Maureen Muir.
“I’ve been lucky to make good friends throughout the district, county and state,” Groth said. “And I’ve been lucky to serve 12 of my 16 years on boards that set egos and politics aside, to work together for what’s best for our students, with board members who did not promote themselves or their political parties.
“And it is a thing of wonderment, and I wish Amy could have had that experience.
“But the last four years have been different. One of our board members has put party politics before our students’ interests. It’s been annoying but not a big deal, thanks to four other board members who make decisions that are student-based.”
In the background on the audio can be heard rustling noises, the sound of Salazar packing up to walk out of the meeting.
Groth continued: “His [Salazar’s] efforts to defeat Prop. AA, which will bring our schools up to date and ready for the future, were ineffective.
“Next month there will be two politically motivated board members.”
Addressing fellow trustees Dalessandro, Herman and Beth Hergesheimer, Groth said, “I know you’ll continue the good fight and separate the sense from the nonsense. Our district is stronger being non-partisan, data-driven and student-centered. Party politics has no place in the district.”
Groth then mentioned personal travel plans and said, “I am the first to admit that my patience and sense of humor do need a rest.”
“But all will be well,” she continued. “We have intelligent people with integrity and dedication to providing our students with the best public education possible. Our staff, our parents, our community, our three board members – and they will greatly outnumber the self-promoters who really don’t care.
“As long as the district can keep attracting and hiring the best of the best, our kids will continue to thrive and enjoy an outstanding public education.”
Groth closed by thanking everyone – “not only those who are here but those who are not. It’s been a great run.”
An uphill battle
By speaking during public comment and by thanking those not present, Groth intended for her remarks to be made public. But reading the words is different from hearing them.
Encinitas resident Danica Edelbrock, who was in the audience when Groth spoke, said, “I was prepared for tears as Barbara Groth stood to speak at her last board meeting after 16 years. I was not expecting her to point fingers and alienate John Salazar.
“I felt very uncomfortable and sorry for him as he quickly gathered his things and rushed out of the meeting during her speech. I was shocked, and by the silence in the room it appeared everyone else was too.”
Board members who promote themselves and put party politics before student interests?
Not making decisions that are student-based? Being partisan, not data-driven and not student-centered?
All that because Salazar asks uncomfortable questions about how the district spends its money? Does that make him against student interests?
Muir may now face an uphill battle to be regarded without suspicion in the district after Groth’s alarm about the next four years with not one but two “politically motivated” board members. Doesn’t Muir deserve at least some time before she is pre-judged?
Are Salazar and Muir really grand-standers, “self-promoters who really don’t care?” Pretty harsh accusations with little evidence to back up the charges.
Speaking of party politics, Groth sought and received an endorsement from the teachers union, which aggressively promoted her in the recent election – while Salazar, whom she accused of self-promotion, spent hardly a dime on his re-election campaign.
Since Salazar was the main target of Groth’s criticism, his reaction was interesting.
“I realize losing her fifth term really disappointed Barbara, but moving from policy disagreements to personal attacks and diatribes was crossing the line and unnecessarily mean-spirited,” he wrote in an email.
“Elected leaders must always remember we serve the people who put us here every four years and are not entitled to remain in office just because you have been around for a couple of decades. Clearly, it was time for a change.”
Having left for a vacation shortly after the board meeting, Groth either chose not to respond or was unable to respond to my email asking for clarification on aspects of her speech. Hergesheimer was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
Dalessandro replied in an email, saying, “Barbara was speaking as a private citizen during public comments. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on her comments.”
Amy Herman did call me back and said Groth’s comments “were her own perspective, not mine.”
“Barbara was speaking only for herself at the meeting,” Herman said. “I actually didn’t know she was going to do that. She certainly didn’t consult with me. And she did not express my feelings.”
Herman said she didn’t know Groth was planning to single her out and said she was surprised by her comments.
“I’m happy to have been re-elected,” she said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work in the district and with the board, and plan on working cooperatively and continuing to work for the kids.”
A fresh start
Herman’s refreshingly positive comment that she plans to work cooperatively with all board members, is a hopeful sign.
Despite Groth’s denunciations, Salazar said he too is optimistic that the new board can work together amiably, with differences in opinion discussed respectfully.
Imagine the reception if Groth had congratulated the winners, been gracious in defeat, and encouraged the board to leave the tension of the last four years behind and make a fresh start.
Instead of stunned silence at the conclusion of her remarks, she might have received applause and a standing ovation in a legitimate and well-deserved show of gratitude for all her work over the years.
Through the force of her personality (which is considerable), Groth could have laid a foundation for reconciliation and collaboration, helped to set the tone for increased harmony in the district, and promoted a non-adversarial culture of tolerance and respect.
Rather, she chose a very different path, deciding to go out on a low note, with a swan song that sounded bitter and petty. What a shame for someone with such a remarkable career in public education to end it that way.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.