Monday, March 3, 2008 | It was all but certain that most of the throng of teachers, staff and parents who filled the multi-purpose room at Del Mar Hills Academy Feb. 26 would leave in defeat.

If Thomas F. Bishop were going to remain at the helm of the school district he’s led for a decade, that evening’s gathering — what became a sort of protest/wake for a leader many love, followed by the final vote for his resignation — would never have happened.

They knew it, and came in force anyway.

So there was a none-too-subtle feeling of desperation at Del Mar Hills that night, one that seems certain to emanate through the district for some time. No matter what one thinks of Bishop, who has loyal supporters and ardent detractors among both parents and staff, what happened last Tuesday served notice that Del Mar now needs some serious healing.

By 6 p.m., when the board of trustees of the Del Mar Union School District emerged from their closed session meeting, no empty seats remained in the big room. The crowd, mostly dozens of Bishop supporters, bristled with indignant energy. In what I heard of their conversations, outrage, worry and shock simmered. They would soon boil over.

The Del Mar trustees sit at a line of foldout tables on a stage at the front of the room, about three feet above the audience. To sit there that evening, daunted by more than 32 speaker slips, looking out at a room about to erupt, could not have been easy (if their faces were any indication). At least not for the three-person majority whose agenda it was to axe Bishop.

But as many stunned district employees reminded them that night, learning that the captain of your ship just got sent down the plank isn’t a piece of cake, either. Deborah Hanna, a third grade teacher with 31 years in the district, got a stinging public comment session going.

“Do I have too much power in my classroom?” she asked, protesting critics who decried the superintendent’s hand as too mighty. “Do I have too much power when deciding how to teach the state standards?”

The room exploded — and I do mean exploded — with cheers and applause as she finished, a cry that told of aching anticipation for that moment in those who sounded it.

The superintendent’s resignation was opposed with a brew of rational appeal, raw emotion and rhetorical assault — with an emphasis on the final two. The best case against Bishop’s resignation was simply that the $287,000 it will cost (at a minimum) simply isn’t worth it in a year when such financial misery is expected to rain down on California public schools. Especially not with his contract up in two years.

Few let the board forget that.

“It appears you let your lust for power stand in the way of good judgment,” parent Kelli Politoske told the board. “Why did you force Tom Bishop to resign? Why this shotgun divorce? … Why the rush to fire our only advocate at the state level?”

A staggering number of speakers — many of them staff and instructors that Bishop himself had hired — far exceeded their three-minute time limit in offering praise for their boss.

“We know full well that we are better educators because of his support and leadership,” retired district employee Martha Cox said, bring on another thundercloud of cheers from the packed house.

When parents who were thrilled to see Bishop depart took the mic, the trickle of applause from a back corner left no doubt about who was in the minority.

“There aren’t a lot of parents here speaking in support of Mr. Bishop because he frankly didn’t listen to parents,” said Ginny Merrifield, a district parent and frequent critic of the superintendent, who managed the election campaigns of the board members who pushed him to resign.

“He misrepresented the facts, he lied and he collaborated with others to undermine the board. I think it’s fair to call the question of whether or not he’s willing to work with the board,” she said, over a swell of booing.

The roughly 90 minutes of verbal combat yielded a spate of interesting charges:

  • First, that board member Katherine White should resign, be recalled or be censured for a quote she made in my last column about other unsavory goings on in the Del Mar district. (Goings-on that were not only never denied by any of the speakers, but which were in fact fleshed out by one of them, who added details that White did not offer.)
  • Second, that your Merge-land correspondent is in fact a “crony” of White, Annette Easton and Steven McDowell, the board majority who ousted Bishop. (I try hard to be fair and honest.)
  • Third, that it was the goal of the new board majority to oust Bishop from the start, a claim bolstered by a quote White gave to the Union-Tribune in 2006, where she mentioned the option of buying out Bishop’s contract if he didn’t deal well with a newly powerful board. (“What I mean was not supposed to be a comment on Tom in particular, it was just a comment in general,” White told me. “It was supposed to be a statement of fact.”)

Two questions, both of them still unanswered, overshadowed the meeting and will likely overshadow the Del Mar district for some time.

The first, and most obvious, was why exactly Bishop was booted right there and then. All Board President Annette Easton said, with an apology, was that she couldn’t say.

“I would only consider a decision like this if I really felt that it was in the best interest of helping us as a community move forward,” Easton told the room, still brimming two hours in. “You see different sides of the entire picture … Not all of us have access to the same information.”

(Bishop is unpopular among some in the district for having an uncompromising management style, being less-than-upfront on his personal agenda and not tolerating dissenting views, all of which critics say have hindered many district endeavors: Its effort to sell a piece of land to the city of Del Mar, its setting of boundaries for attendance at its eight schools, the process of setting up a Spanish-language program and the management of a nonprofit that supports the Del Mar curriculum, among other things.)

But whatever information Easton was referring to apparently failed to sway the two more Bishop-friendly board members, who voted against buying out Bishop’s contract.

“This is a sad day for me,” Trustee Linda Crawford said.

The second question, far more difficult and frightening than the first, was aired in many forms by people on both sides of the Bishop debate, and its importance was underscored by the nearly unbelievable bitterness of the whole affair. Even in Del Mar, where divisive school debate has seemingly risen to a sort of sport (at least among parents), the meeting Feb. 26 was worryingly ugly. And now a recall campaign is brewing for the three board members who pushed Bishop out.

Parent Mary Taylor put it best. The next test that the trustees of the Del Mar Union School District, and their choice for a superintendent, must successfully pass: “What is your plan for getting us through this?”

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

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