Del Mar school board strikes a blow against kids


By Marsha Sutton

Trustees for the Del Mar Union School District voted last week to cancel a fully funded Spanish program that was up and running, loved by students, and taught by a popular teacher they threw out the door mid-year. Kids first, huh?

The vote was 4 to 1. At least trustee Doug Perkins, the lone dissenter, had the sense to realize that cutting a successful program halfway into the school year was clearly a bad move.

But the others … Are they so caught up in legal wrangling and policy guidelines that they can’t see the forest for the trees?

According to DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody, the school board had the power to sustain the Spanish program at Del Mar Heights School for the rest of the year. Board members only had to allow the Heights to continue to employ Spanish teacher Mary Zobell, whose contract was set to expire on Jan. 20.

“The board has the option if they so choose … to hire Mary as a temporary employee through the end of the year and continue the program,” Peabody said in an interview before the Jan. 18 board meeting.

Instead, four board members, relying on legal technicalities and a narrow interpretation of arbitrary district guidelines, resorted to a disgraceful display of complete disregard for student interests.

The item on the agenda listed Zobell as one of six contractor agreements needing board approval. “The superintendent recommends board approval/ratification of site performance agreements,” read the summary for all six.

Peabody acknowledged that her employment was technically out of compliance with labor laws, and that he mistakenly approved her contract for the first half of this year. Even so, he appeared to support the continuation of the Spanish program, in both his written recommendation to the board and in his interview with me.

“They were just trying to be creative and I understand that,” said Peabody of the Heights, calling the school’s action an “error of exuberance.”

Heights principal Wendy Wardlow appreciated Peabody’s support for her school’s efforts to find creative ways to offer special programming. Although she acknowledged that the arrangement was problematic and said it was an inadvertent mistake, she held out hope that the school board would find a way to approve the agreement, perhaps as a pilot program as other schools in the district have.

But trustees rejected the contract, even though they had the authority to let it continue.

The issue, as Peabody explained, concerned Zobell’s history with the district as a former employee, as well as the role of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation in funding salaries for teachers of non-core, Extended Studies Curriculum subjects.

Zobell’s salary this year was funded by the Heights PTA through private donations directly to the school. Normally, PTAs fund programs, not salaries. The item before the board Jan. 18 was to approve $15,000 for Zobell for the period of Jan. 23 through the end of the school year. This was the second half of a one-year contract, one that classified her as an independent contractor.

Zobell taught Spanish during regular school hours at Del Mar Heights as a temporary employee of the district in 2009-2010, according to Peabody, which he said makes her ineligible to work as an independent contractor by the same employer in the future.

Last school year, 2010-2011, Spanish was taught as an after-school program rather than during the school day.

This year, the Heights wanted to integrate Spanish back into regular school hours, so all children could benefit from the language instruction, not just those who paid for after-school enrichment. So the school’s PTA provided funds to hire Zobell as an independent contractor.

“They were just trying to add to the kids’ programs,” Peabody said. “They really wanted to get the program up and running again. But we can’t be out of compliance on the labor code.”

Professional expert

The original performance agreement was approved at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, to run through Jan. 20, 2012. Peabody said he approved it, but added, “I probably should have paid closer attention.”

To continue Zobell’s employment through the end of the school year, the Heights submitted an item for the Jan. board meeting to extend her contract. It is this extension that the board denied.

Peabody was made aware of the problem by parent Beth Westburg, a Del Mar Hills School parent who raised the issue during public comment at the November 2011 school board meeting after noticing a donation on the agenda of $20,000 for the Heights for a professional expert. “So I just asked what that was,” she said.

After learning it was for a Spanish program instructor, Westburg said she asked some follow-up questions of the district, “because we wanted to see what they were doing so we could copy it.” Others have challenged that contention, saying the Heights has been specifically targeted and repeatedly harassed.

“It looks like they did the right thing,” Westburg said of the vote. “I feel bad for the parents, but I feel bad for all parents in the district. We’re all losing ESC.”

Although the contract was out of compliance with labor codes, Peabody said the district could have resolved the problem by hiring Zobell as an employee. But the board needed to weigh in on this, he said, because employees teaching non-core subjects like ESC are funded by the foundation and not normally by private donations directly to schools through the PTA.

The frustration for parents at the Heights is that many feel their school’s contribution to the foundation exceeds the resources they receive in return, since the money raised for the DMSEF is distributed to the district’s eight schools based more upon enrollment numbers than per-school contributions.

“The Heights feels they raise more money than they get back,” Peabody said. “They’re right. They get about 80 percent back. I understand their position.”

But he said with district-wide fundraising the money is spread around. “It is not a dollar-for-dollar exchange,” he said. “Some schools make out better than other schools on what they get back.”

Children come second

Forcing parents to donate to a foundation that distributes money unevenly, on programs for other schools, is an unfair policy in need of change.

Making matters worse, parents are being coerced into giving money to the foundation for teachers’ salaries, when the school board betrayed parents’ trust by doling out to employees, in individual $1,000 bonuses, about $500,000 the district received last year in Federal Education Jobs Fund money.

While other districts used the Jobs Fund money to save temporary teachers’ jobs or to offset the impact of statewide budget cuts to the general fund, Del Mar, alone among local school districts, gave all employees cash.

Had the DMUSD contributed the money to support the ESC program, that $500,000 could have saved the Spanish program and many others. It’s galling for the board to tell parents to give money to the foundation for ESC teachers, when the district won’t even support the ESC program with free money from the feds.

Denying a fully-funded program of enormous value for students — at a time when intensified demand for foreign language instruction for young pupils is at an all-time high — is not just idiotic, it’s shameful.

But this is about more than cutting a Spanish program. Bashing Del Mar Heights and shuttering innovative programs that parent and staff ingenuity have put in place has become jolly sport for far too many in this district.

This recent debacle seems more like a punitive measure meant to send the message that independent-minded schools do not dare step out of line.

Lingering hostility toward Heights programs, policies and personnel translates into suspicion and resentment over every original idea Wardlow and her team might develop.

The Heights raises more than its share of money for the foundation, has an inventive principal who collaborates with staff to develop creative programs that sometimes drift outside standard operating procedures, and engages actively involved parents who show fierce loyalty toward the school, admiration for its dedicated teachers and zeal for innovation in learning.

People are punished for this kind of behavior in highly politicized bureaucracies like public education, not rewarded.

Although they are no longer learning Spanish, there’s one lesson kids can comprehend quite well: The best interests of children will come in second every time to a system that supports blind allegiance to petty positions and narrow-minded attitudes.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at