EDUCATION MATTERS: McClain’s lawsuit and the election


By Marsha Sutton


Three candidates for the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education – Kristin Gibson, Doug Rafner and Scott Wooden – are running together as a slate. Their positions diverge on some issues but run parallel on many others.

According to their Web sites, all three seem to be backed by the same supporters, many of whom were ardent defenders of former superintendent Tom Bishop.

Some of these supporters’ names go back more than four years, when Bishop lost control of his board in the 2006 election after taking criticism for a number of issues, including: holding too many unwarranted closed-session meetings regarding the Shores property, an association with the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation that was too close for legal comfort, negotiating the prep-time deal with the teachers which affected the funding of the district’s Extended Studies Curriculum program, and allowing bitterness and division to emerge and fester among parents and district employees.

Many of these slate supporters are also staunchly behind another former DMUSD superintendent, Sharon McClain. Released earlier this year, McClain has filed a lawsuit against the district over the firing and has made it clear that she’s interested in a settlement (a shakedown?) once a new board is seated. Her attorney has publicly stated he wants the case resolved in a business-like fashion rather than proceed to court. If elected, how will these three individuals, running as a slate, regard the case?

New trustees find themselves in a different role, once on the inside, as guardians of the district’s money and protectors of taxpayer interests. If elected, could Gibson, Rafner and Wooden exercise objective judgment of the case on its true merits and resist any subtle pressure from supporters who are helping to get them elected?

Since no one knows – except the five current board members – what the reasons were for releasing McClain, why do so many assume she was treated wrongfully? Could there not have been legitimate grounds for dismissal? How would we know? How does anyone claim to know? Is it not possible that those who side with McClain are simply siding against a school board they do not like?

I’m not defending this board. McClain could have clear grounds for her suit, and the board does appear to have mishandled the situation. The board certainly chose to hire her, and for that its members are responsible. And they could have let her go within the first year when it clearly wasn’t working.

So the school board is guilty of bad judgment in selecting her in the first place when the fit wasn’t right, and for drawing out the dismissal for months and months until it became a public circus. But we should hesitate to embrace the popular position that McClain was mistreated and deserved to keep her job, without knowing the reasons behind the dismissal.

It would be truly astonishing if, as McClain claims, the board never informed her of the reasons why she was fired. The legal requirement for privacy of all personnel matters has kept the public in the dark regarding the district’s side of the dispute. So will we ever know the cause – or even whether there was one?

Hopefully, this lawsuit will reveal pertinent information and allow community members to form their own opinions based on more than wishes and rumors. But that may only happen if the case proceeds to court. If there is a settlement, we will never know. All we’ll gather from a settlement is the appearance of school district culpability.

For the good of the district and its bottom line, let’s hope new board members can objectively consider the case without bias or undue pressure from backers, and keep the district’s financial interests foremost in their minds.

An aggressive defense against this suit may lead not only to the retention of the money McClain is demanding but also the potential recovery of sizeable attorneys’ fees. On the other hand, the district’s case may stand on shaky ground, and a settlement is the best we can hope for. Those tantalizing closed-session facts will tell the story … and wouldn’t the truth be nice to know?