Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 | Sometime in the middle of January, an envelope containing about $8,000 in cash and personal checks disappeared from a drawer at Del Mar Heights Elementary School.

The money was proceeds from a book fair the school held in December to raise money for new library books — and no one knows what happened to it. The locked drawer where it was kept showed no signs of forced entry. The money didn’t turn up in a massive search of the school office.

Days after the envelope was discovered missing, the police were called. They have no leads.

The incident is obviously embarrassing for the staff of the school, members of which admit that they broke with district policy by not keeping the money in the school safe when it wasn’t being counted.

“Mistakes were made,” said Heights Principal Wendy Wardlow. “There should have been better oversight.”

The errors were magnified by a news story about the missing money appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune. In a short Feb. 8 piece, Wardlow was quoted as being regretful and Superintendent Tom Bishop as disappointed — with him also noting the amount of the loss as unprecedented.

Everyone acknowledges that losing track of over $8,000 is a pretty big bungle.

But the appearance of a story about the missing funds in the Union-Tribune has raised the suspicions of many in the Del Mar Heights community, who wonder if the story was pushed to the Union-Tribune by someone in the district who might not mind seeing the school embarrassed in the region’s biggest paper.

True or not, such paranoia is commonplace in the district these days. While schools in Del Mar manage to produce some of the highest test scores in San Diego County — and absolute adoration from many parents — the politics of education in this affluent and successful community are frequently vicious, vindictive and sometimes nearly violent.

The U-T story raised eyebrows partly because the paper writes barely at all about mid-coastal elementary schools. Besides fluffy features, the only hard news that makes it to print is truly major: bond measures, board elections and major curricular crisis.

Moreover, the story was published before many in the district — even many of those on staff at Del Mar Heights School — had heard about the missing money, leaving a very limited pool of potential leakers.

After Superintendent Tom Bishop was informed of the missing funds on Jan. 24, he issued a gag order for everyone who knew of the incident, including staff and the school board.

Two weeks later, the story appeared.

Burglaries, thefts, narcotics violations, vandalism and other crimes are regularly reported at schools in the area, so it’s hard to see why this report would stand out. According to the crime-mapping website Arjis.org, at least five similar crimes were reported at DMUSD schools between November and January. Does the U-T check them all out, or did something else draw the paper’s attention to that January incident at Del Mar Heights?

School board member Katherine White said the circumstances — the leak of an embarrassing story when only a few knew about it — “are something.”

“I didn’t read about it in the paper when there was a principal drunk in a school event,” White said. “And I didn’t read in the paper when a school employee was using drugs on campus. And I don’t read about the principal that screams at his employees. And I don’t read about the other thefts that have happened in the schools this year … I don’t understand what makes this such a reportable event when those other things I’ve never even been officially told about.”

The view of the Heights School as a target of the district administration — specifically Superintendent Tom Bishop — is widely (though not universally) held among the school’s parents and staff.

None that I contacted would speak for attribution on the subject, but the story they tell is the same. Critics from all over the district have long said that Bishop does not tolerate disagreement from employees. And Wardlow, the Heights principal, has earned a reputation as a straight-talker.

“He hates Wendy and he hates the Heights and he’s been trying to get rid of her for years,” one parent said. “And why is that? Because Wendy speaks what she thinks. She’s not diplomatic.”

Bishop told me he was “disappointed” about the missing money. He did not return calls Friday seeking further comment.

The spat between Bishop at the Heights has old origins, according to those who describe it, but the conflict has heightened recently. In 2006, a brand new, three-person school board majority was elected on a message of reform, implicitly criticizing the superintendent and a school board that they said had long given him everything he wanted. Their election came amid a mass evaporation of faith in various divisions of the district, especially in the nonprofit foundation that supports Del Mar classes with private money. Many of the most vocal supporters of the “slate of three” reformers were Heights parents. Two of the new school board members sent their kids to the school.

Since the election, the Superintendent’s professional life has been significantly less predictable. Board meetings are no longer smile-a-thons held to ratify Bishop’s desires. When oddities occur — and there have been too many to list here — Bishop is brought into line by his board.

Last year, parents from another DMUSD school nearly erupted into a fistfight over the district’s plan to start a pilot Spanish immersion program, partly because the district didn’t bother to tell parents of its plans until after the decision to go ahead was made. The principal of the school herself learned of the immersion program minutes before the school board voted to approve it. But after parents revolted — complaining that no one told them what was going on — the plan had to be canceled.

Two months later, Heights Principal Wardlow appeared in front of the school board asking to start a different Spanish language program at the school. Her proposal for a smaller program was developed entirely by the school staff and had its support.

Despite that adding foreign language education has been a longtime stated goal of the district — and that the Heights curriculum was an obvious chance to atone for the blundering of the earlier immersion program — Bishop and an ally on the board rode Wardlow through a two-hour hearing on the proposal, bringing to bear their full arsenal of nitpicking on the principal.

The message was clear: the district can do what it wants, and it might mess things up horribly. But even an obviously competent and heavily supported proposal from the Heights is going to get the toughest scrutiny from the district.

One wound between the Heights and the district goes to the very existence of the school itself. Rumors have persisted for years — heard by teachers and school board members — that Bishop has plans to close the Heights, sell the extremely valuable land it sits on, and use the money to build a new district office.

The superintendent always denies this. Of course, Heights parents and staff still find such talk incredibly disturbing. And in other matters, not a lot of love rains down from the district to dissuade parents and staff of the notion that their school is looked upon less than favorably by it.

The very thing that allegedly pits Wardlow against Bishop — her forthrightness — is what many parents say they like most about her.

“Wendy Wardlow has all of my tremendous support, as well as everybody in the community that I’ve ever talked to,” said parent Ralph DeMarco, who sent five kids through various Del Mar schools, and says he likes Wardlow the best of any principal. When DeMarco heard about the missing $8,107.18 in book fair funds, “I went over there and I said I want to write you a check right now.”

With a tone of suspicion that has become all-too-common around Del Mar schools lately, he admitted finding the U-T piece a bit weird.

“Is that somebody’s PR plan there? Why this article like that? Is somebody feeding that for the purpose of their overall agenda?” he asked.

It could be nothing. But in Del Mar these days, you just never know.

Ian S. Port is assistant editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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