Where’s the outrage?

By Marsha Sutton

What happened to the contentious critics who attended all those Del Mar Union School District board meetings the past four years to lambast previous board members, three in particular, for a laundry list of charges that included, confusingly, grievances ranging from inattention to micro-managing?

Those naysayers and nitpickers – the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” as Spiro Agnew famously said of his detractors – have inexplicably disappeared from public view.

Apparently the issues now aren’t nearly as important as the prior prime objective, which was to harangue, harass and humiliate three pesky board members who had the gall to stun the power-brokers and puppet-masters by unexpectedly winning an election.

I’m not saying the old board did everything right – they made mistakes, certainly. But the new board also deserves some measure of community involvement, which is glaringly absent.

Some of those verbal assaults – aimed at former trustees’ decisions and actions, as well as their personal character – centered around fiscal issues and the proper management of district funds.

As recently reported, the current school board, with three new trustees who were championed by those who vilified the previous board, approved two controversial allocations of the district’s allotted $763,000 in Federal Education Jobs Funds, which was federal money intended to save jobs.

Del Mar’s decision to give $1,000 in “cash incentives” to all employees amounted to about $500,000. Most of the rest was spent on a Supplemental Employee Retirement Plan (SERP).

After this news was released, comparisons were made to other local school districts that chose instead to save temporary teachers’ jobs or use the money to offset the impact of statewide budget cuts to the general fund.

No district other than Del Mar used the money to give cash to employees.

The question most asked by readers was whether the DMUSD should have contributed the money to support the Extended Studies Curriculum program.

Every year, parents are asked – begged, really – to give to the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation specifically for the ESC program (consisting of classes in science, technology, art, music and physical education), which costs a bundle to operate. Parents are told frequently by the district that ESC jobs are in jeopardy as a result of state budget cuts, and programs will be cut if donations fall short.

Many parents now want to know why the district didn’t apply that federal money (and there was a lot of it) to the ESC program. Five hundred thousand dollars could have made a huge impact.

A good question. A better question is why the school board didn’t denounce this giveaway and ask the same question before unanimously approving the $1,000-per-employee payout.

An even better question is why parents didn’t loudly and publicly condemn the school board for supporting the proposal.

A one-time giveaway

Last fall, teachers entered negotiations unhappy with higher health care costs and were presented with a district offer to use Federal Education Jobs Funds to offset these rising costs. Although the proposal was tentative – and at the time unapproved, and perhaps even unknown, by the school board – members of the teachers’ union convened and overwhelmingly accepted the unauthorized proposal.

Next thing you know, the item is on the school board agenda for approval.

So what are caught-in-the-middle trustees to do? Be villains and veto the loose agreement after the district prematurely offered and the teachers accepted? Or acquiesce, be good soldiers, and smile uncomfortably while voting yes?

If board members were not involved in early labor negotiations and the offer was made by district senior staff without trustees’ foreknowledge or tacit approval, then they were likely faced with a hard decision.

On the other hand, weren’t they elected on a wave of disapproval of former board members who were accused repeatedly, and often unjustly, of not providing proper fiscal oversight? Did no one on this current board consider ways that money might be put to better use? Don’t elected officials have a primary duty to carefully guard taxpayer money and see that it’s spent appropriately and effectively?

Trustees appeared to ignore the very real possibility that, should donations fall short this year, new teachers might be sacrificed if it comes to pass that class sizes must increase or there’s not enough money to fully fund ESC.

The $1,000 is what the DMUSD deceptively labeled “a one-time stipend.” But the definition of a stipend is “a sum of money allotted on a regular basis, usually for some specific purpose” – making the phrase “a one-time stipend” an oxymoron. This clearly wasn’t a regular payment; rather, it was a one-time giveaway, a bonus in anyone’s vocabulary.

Making matters worse, the district’s “one for all and all for one” idea of equity meant that not just teachers but every district employee all the way up to Superintendent Jim Peabody would be entitled to the federal money.

What “incentive” does this provide? What will these workers do better now that they have this bit of money? Will teachers “teach” better? Will Peabody “lead” better?

Although a nice piece of change, a $1,000 “cash incentive” isn’t going to change anyone’s lifestyle, especially a full-time employee working in the Del Mar Union School District. But when you put it all together into a half-million-dollar package, it becomes a huge chunk of money that could have really made a difference in the security of the ESC program.

The “cash incentive, one-time stipend” program insults all the hard-working parents who dig deep into their pockets each year to generously contribute whatever they can afford to sustain the ESC program. Given this misuse of federal money, the Foundation will have a much harder time this year convincing over-extended parents that the district is poor and needs their donations.

So who is responsible for this misguided allocation of money? Teachers for asking for it? District staff for offering it? The school board for approving it? Parents for not forcefully objecting?

Throwing new teachers under the bus

The school board’s approval of this $500,000 giveaway exposes as hypocrisy the motives of those protesters who created such a stink in past years over fiscal mismanagement.

Seeing no objections today to actions that, under the previous board would have created near riots and storms of criticism, it would be easy to assume that the outrage was a sham, simply a vendetta against that particular school board. One wonders if the relentless defamation of previous board members had less to do with issues than with personalities and retaliation.

Do trustees now get to act with impunity? Is there no backlash for mismanagement of federal dollars? Apparently not. As long as the “bad guys” on the school board are gone, new board members get a pass.

Yet there is outrage out there – just untapped, unorganized and unscripted. Some comments from readers say it best:

•“While all the other local (apparently well run) school districts were using these federal taxpayer funds appropriately to hold on to teaching positions, DMUSD was … handing out $1000 cash bonuses as ‘incentives.’ … All the while, our current teachers, while pocketing their $1000, were out there picketing against the pink slips, and wearing pink in memorial for those poor teachers who were let go. Ridiculous and so disingenuous.”

•“Does the DMUSD Board of Trustees and Jim Peabody genuinely think this was truly the intent and the best, highest use of these federal dollars? How can they look themselves in the mirror?”

•“Why did parents knock themselves out to dig deep and try to meet the DMSEF’s goal of contributing $800/student or whatever it was? Why didn’t they just apply the $743,000 and keep our oh-so-valuable art, music, tech, PE and science teachers?”

•“This is quite possibly the worst mismanagement of funds I have ever seen. So glad to see that Peabody and staff have the best interest of the children at heart here and took $21K out of the General Fund for themselves. How can they possibly expect the foundation to raise money when they pocket it themselves?”

•“I was campaigning for our teachers to ‘save their jobs!’ I had no idea they were so quick to throw each other under the bus. How many ESC teachers could we have next year with that money? How many temporary teachers are going to be let go? All this talk of ‘reorganizing’ the library, raising class sizes, reducing ESC, all the while they gave themselves a bonus.”

•“The trustees utterly failed to ask challenging questions about this policy, and the superintendent caved on a ridiculous proposal to give out meaningless bonuses in an economic time such as this. Shame on the leadership of DMUSD. That much money could have been used in a number of more productive ways.”

Really, what else is there to say?

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: