When Gwendolyn Kirkland took over Fulton, the interim principal immediately stepped into controversy.

Other principals complained that the gig at the K-8 school in the southeastern San Diego neighborhood of Bay Terraces was never advertised to anyone else.

Many months later, as the school searched for a permanent leader this spring, teachers began to worry that Kirkland had an edge once again. Fulton teachers and parents grilled and scored the candidates. Then their choices got tossed out after Kirkland didn’t do well. They were told to do it all over again.

Suspicious teachers stood up at a San Diego Unified school board meeting and demanded an investigation. They claim they were retaliated against for doing so. Kirkland said the first round of interviews was unfair, rigged against her by teachers upset with necessary changes she was making at Fulton.

The superintendent was pulled in to figure out what to do. Candidates ended up being interviewed not once, not twice, but three times as the process got redone over and over.

The quest to decide who would lead Fulton for good — Kirkland or somebody else — was a bizarre battle that only seems more bizarre now that Kirkland has landed in another controversy.

Like the rest of the school board, trustee Shelia Jackson voted last summer for Kirkland to get the temporary job. She met with Fulton teachers about their worries as the debate over their school raged.

But at the same time that Jackson stepped into the back-and-forth over Fulton and its principal, the school board member now has revealed she was living with Kirkland in her Valencia Park home free of charge for a couple of years.

After questions surfaced about whether Jackson was living outside the area of the school district she was elected to represent, Jackson said she actually lived in her area with Kirkland. But that, in turn, has raised a slew of other questions about whether Jackson should have accepted free rent from a school district employee.

Jackson never reported it as a gift, something that public officials are supposed to do. And she never recused herself from talks involving Kirkland.

“I tried to stay out of it as much as I could and let the area superintendents deal with it,” Jackson said in an interview last week.

Yet records and interviews reveal that Jackson was still involved in the debates over Fulton. She sat in school board talks behind closed doors about the Fulton principal. Her calendars show two meetings with Superintendent Bill Kowba to discuss Fulton. Teachers say she often showed up at the school.

“It was acutely obvious that there seemed to be something going on between the area superintendent, Shelia Jackson and Gwen Kirkland,” sixth grade teacher Rick Stewart said. “Why was there such heavy-handedness in trying to get Gwen again as principal when she was not successful this year?”

Jackson did not return calls for this story. In a previous interview last week she said she and Kirkland had been friends since they went through the same teacher training program in the early ’90s. But Jackson argued that she had nothing to do with evaluating principals and did not give Kirkland any advantages.

“More than anything it probably hurt her from getting her job because more people tend to do things against people that know me than help people that know me,” Jackson told NBC7 San Diego.

While the Fulton battles were unusually bitter, it isn’t unusual for Jackson to get involved in debates about schools in her area. On a school board that is sometimes criticized for micromanaging, Jackson argues she has to be heavily involved because she answers to the community.

Fulton was one of just two schools where interim principals were simply chosen by the area superintendent without the jobs being advertised, according to the principals union.

The principals’ labor agreement says “the District will follow a transparent process when posting vacancies.” While there is no single standard process, schools usually advertise jobs and set up panels of parents and teachers to interview and rate candidates, a way to get community involvement.

Fulton sits on the rolling hills of Skyline Drive in a long stretch of modest ranch homes.

Before Kirkland came, it had had the same principal for seven years. Former Principal Caroline King made a point of keeping her door open and once treated her teachers to massages and manicures.

Gwendolyn Kirkland was a different kind of leader. Teachers complained she was hard to reach and unwilling to compromise. They rattled off a litany of concerns from scheduling things at the last minute to breaking union rules.

“It just seemed like she wanted to do it her way or no way,” said Sherie Edwards, a Fulton parent who also works there as a special education technician.

Some parents thought Kirkland was a welcome change. Nikena Carter felt like the last principal just wanted to be friends with everyone, but Kirkland was willing to challenge teachers to help kids. Kirkland said she was worried by “toxic types of behavior” on campus, unprofessionalism and rudeness.

“She always wanted to know what our issues were,” said Carter, who has two children at Fulton. “She even cared what our children had to say.”

Fulton still had to choose its permanent leader. So Fulton teachers and other employees decided who would stand for them in the process. Parents joined them to interview and rate the would-be-principals.

But just a few days later, Area Superintendent Brenda Campbell told them to scrap their ratings and start over again. Upset teachers got together to express their worries at a school board meeting.

In a letter to the school board, several teachers wrote that one candidate had scored much lower than the others the first time around.

“Brenda Campbell told us that this discrepancy would be an issue for the board members, ultimately leaving them to question the integrity of our scoring,” the teachers wrote.

Campbell was out on vacation this week and didn’t respond to email requests for an interview. Kirkland said she heard she was rated lower than everyone else, so much lower that the human resources department said it would raise questions about fairness. She said that the first interviews were rigged against her by teachers who had decided to get rid of her.

“The people on that panel had already made up their minds. Is that a fair interview?” Kirkland asked. “They were biased from the beginning. They wanted me out that badly. I felt terrible walking in there.”

Teachers said the second time around, teachers chosen by the vice principal, not fellow teachers, did the interviews. Kirkland said she was told that she was the top candidate in the second interviews.

“We are concerned that a new panel has been created to achieve the desired outcome that the elected panel did not achieve,” the teachers wrote to the school board.

Their unspoken worry was that the principal search was being rigged to help Kirkland. The teachers wanted an immediate investigation and pushed to put off the principal selection.

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Some of the upset teachers later met with Jackson and school board President Richard Barrera at Fulton. Things had grown tense at the school: Several parents lodged complaints about a teacher who had spoken up in front of the school board. Principal Kirkland had been sympathetic to their concerns.

“The teacher said my child wouldn’t go to college. That she’d work at Burger King or McDonald’s,” said Veronica Muñoz, another mother who backed Kirkland. “But Ms. Kirkland helped me a lot.”

Some teachers saw the complaints as mere retaliation for questioning Kirkland and Campbell. The agenda for their meeting with Barrera and Jackson says “administrators from the Area Superintendent on down have responded to our concerns with the hiring process and our school climate survey with retaliation,” including complaints. Jackson told teachers she had heard some of those complaints.

The school board did not vote on whether or not to choose Kirkland again; it had given up the power to approve principals this spring. But it talked about the Fulton fracas behind closed doors.

Jackson was there for two of the three meetings in which the Fulton principal was on the agenda. She also attended a community meeting about Fulton run by Campbell.

Superintendent Kowba decided to redo the interviews a third time, this time enlisting the deputy superintendent and a retired principal. The third round of interviews was done at the San Diego Unified offices instead of Fulton. They chose someone else. Kirkland went back to the teaching pool.

Her ties to Jackson never helped her, Kirkland said. “Did it turn out in my favor?” she asked.

Kirkland has a long history as a school administrator in San Diego Unified, but she had been on leave from the district when she was first picked for Fulton. She had taught school management at University of California, Los Angeles and had a brief stint leading a nearby charter school, Nubia Leadership Academy.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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