EDUCATION MATTERS: What went wrong?

The failings of the Del Mar school board

By Marsha Sutton


The truth is unavoidable: The Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education is not doing a good job. You’d be hard-pressed at this point to find anyone who thinks they are. In fact, I’d guess that even the board members themselves would admit that their performance has been lackluster.

Whether through inability, indecisiveness or insufficient training and preparation, this board has failed to show proper leadership, vision and direction.

What went wrong?

In 2006, when candidates for the three open seats included what was known as “the slate” – consisting of incumbent board member Annette Easton who had already served one four-year term, and newcomers Steven McDowell and Katherine White – many in the community, including this columnist, were supportive.

We were surprised, yet elated, when all three were elected, with promises of change for the better. We looked forward to a new era of transparency and openness, a sweeping away of the climate of mistrust and fear – like opening the windows of a stuffy room to bring in some much needed fresh air and sunshine.

So we watched in 2007, hopeful. Time went by. Elation and hope turned to restlessness and a sense of unease by mid-2008. In 2009, with our apprehension fully realized, even former supporters were forced to admit that this board was not living up to its promises.

As the slate begins its fourth year in office, we can no longer say, “Just be patient and give them more time.” Time is up, and the district is in complete disarray.

Campaign promises in 2006 of opposition to a rubber-stamp board have turned into petty micro-managing. And the big issues, where board members should be focused, go unaddressed, sidetracked by lengthy discussions that lead nowhere and serve little purpose.

Assurances that deals would not be made behind closed doors have translated into dozens of special meetings, some with incomprehensible agendas, on issues few can keep up with.

Yes, they’ve had a bit of bad luck. The state’s economy plunged, property taxes that sustained programs in the district for so many years went south, finding a new district office became an urgent priority, and political adversaries never really left the field.

Yet, all this could – and should – have been met with grim determination to find solutions through strong leadership and passion for a clearly defined mission.

Sadly, there has been no vision. There has been no leadership, and there has been no strength of purpose – nothing to unite an easily agitated community that was initially ready to give this board a chance.

Conditions have been trying for even cohesive school boards. Yet some have set examples of ways to face economic hardship and weather the storm with fortitude and optimism. Neighboring districts like Solana Beach and San Dieguito benefit from strong school boards with effective staff, working together to continue the focus on student achievement in the midst of financial distress.

But as bad as it seems now, it’s important to resist the inclination to glorify and idealize what we had before. Those years under Superintendent Tom Bishop were hardly golden.

Words like “beloved” – which have been used to describe Bishop – should be reserved for a deceased parent, not a former superintendent whose questionable decisions left a mess for Del Mar’s new superintendent to clean up. A weak board was held at least partly to blame. But have we gone from bad to worse?

How did we get here?

The slate – which benefited from a coordinated, well-funded campaign – tapped into an under-current of discontent with a powerful superintendent and an obedient school board that gave Bishop near-total control over the district.

Arguably, it was Bishop himself who brought about the change in leadership.

Known for a keen sense of politics that served him well for many years, Bishop cultivated and nurtured important alliances with teachers and other key players in the district. But his usually astute political judgment inexplicably failed him in 2006 when he under-estimated the degree of anger unleashed by Del Mar residents over the disposition of the Shores property on Ninth Street.

Bishop’s reluctance to lower the asking price for the Shores to an amount consistent with the property’s Public Use zoning caused enormous frustration within Del Mar’s elite circle and was a misstep often cited as the key reason why the slate gained momentum.

This set the stage for an uprising, as angry Del Mar residents, most without children attending district schools, became involved for the first time in school district business out of desperation to buy the land. To protest against the prior board and its favored superintendent, wealthy citizens impatient with the stalling began to contribute money and political clout to the three slate candidates.

The slate gained traction and won the hotly contested race, many say, thanks to this grassroots dissatisfaction in the city of Del Mar that threw money and power behind the underdogs, all of whom publicly supported efforts to make the sale.

The city ultimately got what it wanted. In the summer of 2007, with Easton as board president, the sale of the Shores to the city of Del Mar was completed, for a price of $8.5 million, the appraised value of the property as zoned for Public Use. Easton was praised by the Del Mar community for mending the broken relationship, sealing the deal and honoring campaign promises.

Besides the Shores sale, a second issue dominated the scene in 2006: funding of the district’s Extended Studies Curriculum program.

The expensive ESC program – which provides fully certificated teachers for art, music, science and technology for Del Mar’s eight schools – is a hallmark of the Del Mar Union School District and is funded in large part by parent donations.

Under Bishop’s direction, the system was pay-as-you-go – i.e., donations raised in the current year paid for ESC teacher salaries for that year. All went well during the boom years when new homes were being built and bought and enrollment was rising. The district reaped the benefits of continually increasing property taxes which were able to sustain the ESC program.

Yet there was a sense of living on borrowed time. It was clear the programs were unsustainable should the economy stagnate or dip. Also, raising the money in one year to pay for programs the following year made more budgetary sense and allowed for better planning. People began to recognize the flaw in the funding system.

Although responsible for many good decisions, Bishop and his board stumbled on a number of controversial issues: boundaries, busing, hot lunch money, the Torrey Hills biotech issue, the Ashley Falls laptop controversy, funding for enrichment teachers, the sale of the Shores property which cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation fees to fight two lawsuits, his too-close relationship with the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation, the intra-district transfer policy, and the failed Sycamore Ridge Spanish language immersion program.

When all three slate candidates were elected, defeating a two-term incumbent board president in the process, it was a clear signal that parents and voters had had enough and fully supported the slate’s campaign pledge to provide greater oversight of the superintendent.

After the Shores sale, the new board’s second major act, at a packed school board meeting in Feb. 2008, was to relieve Bishop of his duties, resulting in a buyout that cost the district about $16,000 per month for 18 months.

The downward spiral

New superintendent Sharon McClain of Hermosa Beach joined the district in August 2008 and came in to a host of problems. It had been nearly two years since the slate was elected, and yet little had been done to address the looming ESC crisis or the pressing need to find a location for the new district office.

McClain was given the unwelcome task of determining how to sustain a system of extended studies programs complicated by funding shortfalls, certificated teachers’ contract rules, and an every-school-for-itself foundation model that left some schools wealthy and other short-changed – all while balancing a budget in tatters, beaten up by the bruised economy and declining property tax income. Throw the Shores dilemma on top of all that, and her job became a Herculean undertaking.

In early 2009, McClain convinced the board and the community that the foundation needed to raise funds district-wide, that the money should pay for the program for the following year rather than the existing year, and that donations should support the ESC program for everything except legally required contractual obligations to the teachers.

She came close to balancing the budget. She also formed the 7-11 committee to evaluate existing facilities and recommend a plan to secure a new district office.

But by mid-2009, it became clear that the relationship between the board and the superintendent had soured. The board’s numerous special meetings, with superintendent evaluations on the agenda for many closed sessions, was indicative that things were not going well.

Yet the board took no action regarding McClain in her first year, or to explain the problems publicly. No efforts at mediation, from what anyone could tell, were begun, and the situation dragged on long enough to alarm parents and staff until an explosive meeting in November created intense backlash against the board for contemplating another superintendent firing.

On top of all that, by the fall of 2009 the mission of the 7-11 committee was seriously impeded by community dissent over the possibility of school closure that threatened to hijack the process.

Trustees never took steps to pacify this storm of protest. Schools became pitted against one another, and hostilities spiraled alarmingly. The board’s public position on the committee’s work was not to get involved. “We want to let them do their job,” we heard from the board. But letting them do their job meant continued, unchecked confrontation. With no efforts from the board to calm the community, the battles persisted.

People accuse the board of micro-managing, but in some ways they don’t manage at all. Nothing seems to get done – macro or micro.

The disintegration of the board has been painful to watch. Governance of the district has degenerated into controlled chaos. The people who scream the loudest seem to win the day. Change, difficult under good circumstances, is cast aside in favor of the status quo, because it’s easier that way.

There seems to be a basic lack of understanding that information from staff should be requested in advance of public board meetings, a common courtesy that also makes board meetings – which sometimes become six-hour marathons – more productive.

And no one seems to know how to run a structured, efficient meeting. Trustees discuss their opinions on issues haphazardly, rather than offering their thoughts in a cogent, orderly, timed manner. The forum seems to be a conversational rambling and often consists of board members chatting away about issues endlessly, with no wrap-up or resolution.

No bad people

None of these trustees are bad people – neither existing nor former board members. They are caring citizens trying their best to do what’s right. But that doesn’t necessarily make them good at what they do.

They’ve fallen short not out of ignorance or a lack of desire to do well. Easton, McDowell and White are intelligent people who are committed to improving the district. They ran for the board to make a positive difference in school culture, governance efficiency and student achievement. Yet in all areas except student achievement, we’ve been disappointed.

The recitation of abusive comments directed at them at board meetings has escalated beyond containment, and the board has only itself to blame for not setting the proper tone of respect early on. They must also take responsibility for choosing a superintendent they don’t get along with, and they need to commit to resolving differences amiably.

They should have called a halt to the devastating fallout from the well-meaning work of the 7-11 committee, or at a minimum insisted with conviction that the community be patient, respectful and accommodating until the committee’s work was done. Saying nothing and simply waiting it out has torn the district apart.

This dismal state of affairs is profoundly depressing for all of us who at one time entertained such faith and hope.

The slate has the rest of 2010, their last year, to leave a legacy of new vitality and optimism, one that inspires confidence in the future. Let’s hope they find the leadership and courage to make the hard decisions, calm a divided community, resolve their differences with the superintendent, and leave the district in a better place than they found it.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: