School boards lose it



Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

School board policy is not known for its courtesy. But even by their own thankless standard, 2021 is shaping up to be a remarkable year for school board tension.

Across the county, remarkable and bizarre dramas have unfolded in some of San Diego’s smaller school districts. At Fallbrook Union Elementary, a board chairman was fired by his colleagues with only the most cryptic explanation. In San Dieguito, union officials hired a private investigator to track a school board member and another was expelled. In Vista Unified and La Mesa-Spring Valley, racist threats and language have engulfed the work of two school boards. And at Fallbrook Union High, a board member faces a recall.

Each of these dead ends has its origins in bitter debates about reopening during the pandemic – but now that latent energy of reopening seems to be spilling out into new conflicts between school boards.

“At least 51 local recall efforts [across the country] K-12 school boards were launched this year, targeting at least 130 elected board members, ”Axios reported. That’s more than twice as much as in a normal year, according to Ballotpedia. Five of those recall efforts – nearly 10% – were launched in San Diego County.

Take the Vista incident, for example. Vista Unified Schools attempted to open their doors to students relatively early in October 2020. But COVID-19 clusters have forced schools and classrooms to continually open and close. Parents were frustrated. Council members and teachers were suspicious; and have finally decided to go back on their reopening.

In February, a white parent mocked a Latina school board member by throwing his “rs” heavily at him, while calling him about the shutdown.

“Marthe [Alvarado] I know you don’t want to listen to parents unless their name is Rosarito Rodriguez, but this endless stop is transforming the achievement gaps between whites and Hispanics in the Grand Canyon, ”said parent, Mads Noesgaard.

Noesgaard, who unsuccessfully ran for Vista School Board in 2020 on a platform to reopen schools, declined to apologize.

The incident consumed the Vista Unified community for weeks. The school board and the superintendent issued statements calling for a civil speech. The parents circulated a petition to recall Alvarado. A group called the BIPOC Educators Association of North County attacked the Vista Chapter of the Parents Association, claiming it had ordered its members to racially harass and target Alvarado.

The parents’ association denied this, and eventually the BIPOC educators were forced to reverse their charge.

It is worth considering the cross-dynamics at work. The Parents’ Association, which has many Latino members, told me its white co-director, and Noesgaard agreed to want the schools to open. Alvarado, the BIPOC Educators Association and the Vista Teachers Union have said opening schools is dangerous.

A dust in the schools of La Mesa in March was similar. Chardá Bell-Fontenot, a board member aligned with the unions on the reopening issue, said forcing students and teachers to return to classrooms was akin to white supremacy. The other members of the Bell-Fontenot board of directors disowned his comments. The conservative media picked up the story and people sent him death threats. Carl DeMaio helped in a push to recall her.

La Mesa’s recall effort has until Sept. 21 to get 12,990 signatures, according to the registrar of electors. Vista’s effort has died down.

The Vista and La Mesa episodes make it tempting to view the school board tension as White’s angst over reopening which is met with reluctance from communities of color. But not all recent hostilities end so cleanly.

Agita in the San Dieguito school community is the result of its teachers’ union having a majority of its board members. The union is currently working on removing two board members – and has already successfully removed another. In this case, the mostly white teachers ousted the district’s very first black administrator, Ty Humes.

Union officials said the board failed to engage enough community participation when nominating Humes to a previously opened seat. But Humes and the other board members catching the union’s wrath all supported the reopening. They say the union wants to remove them, because they vote regardless of what the union wants.

To gauge how far the school board’s policy has gone, union officials hired a private investigator, a board member, in an attempt to prove she lived outside the district. This board member’s house is under contract for sale and she said she would step down from her seat if the deal was made and she moved out of the district, but would not be kicked out by the ‘intimidation.

Humes, who is running for the seat he had to leave, is now also facing questions about his residence, according to The Times of San Diego.

The recent scuffles in San Diego school boards – not to mention the ongoing national and local controversies around critical race theory – show that racial tension in the United States is becoming a driving force in school board politics. . But, at least as far as California is concerned, labor policy is an equally important factor.

One of the controversies of the local school board seems to transcend critical analysis. At the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District, board members voted unanimously to remove their board chair, Caron Leiber. But the board members will not say anything about why they did so and only indirectly referred to an internal complaint.

Leiber was previously the only dissenting voice on Fallbrook’s board, but after the 2020 election she found herself chair with a new majority on the board.

Fallbrook’s other controversy – this time in the high school district – fits much more clearly into a political construct. A parent group, led by Heidi Roderick, has launched a recall effort to remove board chair Diane Summers. They also want to get rid of the other board members. The whole board, they say, is controlled by the teachers’ union and votes 5-0 on all matters of importance.

Parents’ grievances began when the board refused to open schools, even as other districts returned to in-person learning.

Roderick herself has been involved with the board for several years. But the pent-up reopening energy leads to a higher engagement than it has ever seen before.

“I hope the recall will work. But even if it doesn’t work, it has already brought a new level of awareness to our community, ”said Roderick. “We are already looking for people in different areas to come to the school board.



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