Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007 | With wildfires raging through San Diego County, city buses slowed to a stop. Courthouses shut their doors. The mayor’s call went out over the airwaves: Stay home, and stay off the highways.

A notable exception: San Diego City Schools.

Most San Diego schools stayed open Monday despite sooty air and absent teachers. That riled some teachers, principals and parents unnerved by children’s coughing. It nearly prompted an emergency school board meeting and ultimately led the schools’ union for blue-collar workers to file a complaint, nervous about workers’ safety.

Superintendent Carl Cohn opted Sunday night to keep San Diego schools open Monday, saying the school sites were safe. Cohn made the call based on briefings from school police Chief Don Braun and telephone calls from individual schools.

“We look at overall safety,” Cohn said. “Whether or not our employees can get there, and whether the threat is imminent.”

Monday morning, Cohn made a last-minute choice to shutter schools in Mira Mesa and Scripps Ranch, concerned by road closures and the encroaching fire. But the 11th-hour call didn’t reach school bus drivers who shuttled dozens of kids to those schools. Meanwhile, teachers were shuffled among short-staffed schools, causing logistical headaches for principals.

“There’s not enough substitutes,” said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the schools’ Administrators Association, who said one principal was short 12 teachers. “A lot are relocating students to other classrooms, just to have them covered.”

Cohn decided to close all San Diego city schools Tuesday.

One frustrated school trustee, Katherine Nakamura, tried to call an emergency school board meeting to discuss Cohn’s decision. Nakamura told television news crews she disagreed with Cohn’s call to keep schools open, and urged other trustees to meet with her. But her efforts fizzled when school board president Luis Acle cited legal rules requiring two trustees to approach him before calling an emergency meeting.

“The official view of this district is the superintendent’s,” he said. “It is inappropriate to try to upstage a meeting (the superintendent’s press conference) that is much better orchestrated.”

Nakamura wasn’t the only person worried. Teachers’ union president Camille Zombro complained that principals weren’t allowed to close their own schools, citing the dilemma of one principal who found only 10 students in each of her Tierrasanta classes. Cohn said that principals were asked to contact area superintendents before shutting schools.

With or without area superintendents’ permission, some principals were closing their schools by midday Monday, phoning parents such as Rich Sheldon, a San Diego City Schools plant supervisor who left work around noon to pick up his daughter in Bay Park.

Others let parents know they were welcome to take their children, spurring a midday exodus from the schools. At Albert Einstein Academy, a charter school, dozens of parents stopped in to sign out their children, worried about air pollution from the fire. Attendance was already down 30 percent Monday, said middle school principal David Sciarretta. The remaining students skipped breaks, going directly from class to class, and ate their lunches inside.

J. Hodge, an Albert Einstein parent, pulled his ash-blackened mask from his face, and signed a form releasing his children. All morning, the UPS driver ferried packages to homes in Mira Mesa, his throat and chest stinging even behind the protective mask.

“I thought, ‘If I’m out here and don’t want to be in this, I sure don’t want my kids out here,’” said Hodge. “But it’s not half as bad up here (in Golden Hill) as the area I was delivering in.”

School bus drivers helped shuttle invalids out of threatened hospitals and nursing homes, then steered half-empty buses through neighborhoods. Bus driver Larry Isom, president of the union that represents custodians, mechanics and other blue-collar school workers, said his afternoon route that normally numbers 60 kids was down to 20.

Isom was aggravated by district plans to keep custodians and bus mechanics working Tuesday, even as the fires sully San Diego’s air. District spokesperson Linda Zintz said the schools would be operated by “a skeletal crew,” with one custodian and one principal or principal’s representative at each school. Isom fretted that mechanics, who work in an open shop without air conditioning, are especially vulnerable.

“Custodians are supposed to work tomorrow, and we’re asking why,” Isom said. “I lodged a complaint about the safety of our employees.”

Isom and Zombro compared the district’s response to the current wildfires to the Cedar Fire in 2003, when the district shut down schools for a week. The Cedar Fire started on a Saturday, giving the district slightly more time to craft its plan. Zombro said teachers had a greater voice in the decisions made during the Cedar Fire, and was “appalled” by what she saw as the union’s exclusion from Cohn’s decision-making.

“She expressed her point of view quite clearly,” Cohn said during a Monday press conference, adding that there was “no design to limit participation.” Overall, he remarked, “I don’t have (regrets) … I’ve always relied on close communication with law enforcements.”

Parent communication surfaced as a critical issue as the fires encircled San Diego. The schools relied mainly on the mass media to distribute emergency information such as school closures. Fifty of the district’s 180 schools are equipped with Connect-Ed, an automatic system that sends phone messages to parents. Cohn said the emergency highlighted the need to expand Connect-Ed.

“You can’t just rely on the media to announce it,” trustee Mitz Lee agreed.

Cohn’s critics have been vocal, but not all parents panned his decision. Braun noted that by keeping the schools open, police and firefighters’ kids had a safe place to go. (Five childcare centers will be open Tuesday to take kids when schools close.)

And City Heights resident and environmental attorney John Stump wrote via e-mail that Cohn “was acting appropriately for an urban school district like his former district.” The problem, Stump said, is that San Diego teachers and administrators don’t typically live in the same neighborhoods where they teach.

“Teachers’ children are not in the city schools,” Stump wrote, “and their homes are now in the fire storm.”

That storm has extended to the schoolhouse doors — and to the decisions of San Diego’s soft-spoken superintendent, now under fire.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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