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School board candidate Marne Foster breaks out into Swedish a few minutes into our interview. It turns out she lived in Karlskrona, in southern Sweden, for a year while her mom, a dance program coordinator, ran a course at the local dance school. The experience gave her “the international bug,” she said, driving her to experience cultures and lifestyles a long way from the southeastern San Diego neighborhood where she was born and raised.
Foster, who got her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and her master’s degree from American University, both private colleges in Washington, D.C., now works as an educator at the San Diego Community College District. She specializes in transitioning students from continuing education into the workplace or college, and described her City Heights classroom as “like a small United Nations.”
Foster is generally supportive of the work current schools trustee Shelia Jackson has done for her district. She wants to see more equality across the city’s schools, with the best teachers, equipment and training programs spread across the entire city. And Foster said she will be encouraging the teachers union, which has endorsed her, to sit down and start talking to the district about solutions to ongoing budget woes.
And I’d also still like to hear from you. What should I be talking about with the candidates? What do you want to know about them or their policies? And what questions do you have about the introductory interviews they’ve given so far?
The school district’s going broke. The school board’s going to have to make some horrible decisions over the coming months and years, from making layoffs to closing schools. Plus it’s a poorly paid, part-time position. Why on earth would you want this job?
Well, I’m a parent of four and all of my children are products of the San Diego Unified School District. I’ve had to wear many hats. One of them is being an advocate for all of my children but especially one who has special needs.
I had to navigate the school system and really fight for him to have his individualized education program — his IEP. I had to fight to make sure that he had the appropriate accommodations. I had to research and study to make sure I knew what was best for my child. Then I had to make sure they were maintained and he was not punished when those accommodations weren’t provided.
That whole experience, that fight, took me to the California Department of Education to get some decisions overturned, and I was successful in doing that.
So you took on the school district, then?
Elements of it. That was an arduous task for a well-educated woman like myself. I also felt like I wrote a mini-dissertation along the way.
But the point is that if it was that challenging for me, what about the other parents that don’t have the words, that don’t have the insight, who cannot pinpoint what’s wrong, much less how to fight for it? Who don’t know the different resources that are out there. Who don’t have the time to take off work to be at school. Who’s going to stand in the gap for those families, for those individuals?
So I understand their experience. I’ve been there, I’ve fought for it, I’ve partnered with teachers, I’ve partnered with principals.
So you ask me why. I’ve already been doing it. I see myself in this role having a greater capacity to serve and to reach more people. And I was born and raised here. I have a lot existing relationships, a lot of extended family here. So I don’t come by myself.
I wouldn’t even consider it if I thought it was just an army of one. I come with the entire community that I’ve been serving forever.
Do you have any examples of what you could do as a school board member, to help families or individuals in the situation you were talking about earlier, where they’re struggling with the school district?
One idea comes from my work in the classroom. I give students jobs, so they’re class managers. So they’re taking responsibility for their education and they are working in the class in a way that translates to their resume. So, when students come and they say they don’t have any work experience, I say “Now you do. Now you’re a class manager.”
The parents that I’m talking about, some of them are children who have had children. What about empowering them in the classroom? I want them to come into the classroom. I want that to have a job description. I want them to talk with pride about what they’re doing to serve the needs of not only their children but all children. I want them to see that as a springboard for what they can do outside the classroom. It’s just the beginning.
Many of our parents, our families, they’ve lost hope in themselves and what the possibilities are. So when you have that situation, how do their children have hope? Because their first teacher is their parent.
We’ve never done anything like this before. But I think in this economy right now, that’s a conversation that will be received and embraced by parents.
Shelia Jackson’s had some divides with the rest of the board. She’s also had some financial problems and there have been questions about whether or not she resides in the district. What do you think of her tenure on the school board?
I know people who have served on the board before, and I’ve watched Shelia. I have to say that Shelia is committed to the children and families. So, sometimes that comes at a price.
I don’t think anyone can question whether her motivation has been to serve and whether she’s consistently been focused on what is in the best interests of children. You can’t question that.
I think that hindsight is 20/20. We can always go back and question and say we could have done something better, could’ve communicated better.
I cannot be the one to find fault in Shelia Jackson, because what more can we ask from someone, other than to be dedicated to the needs of the children.
A lot of people see this position as a stepping stone to bigger political aspirations. Do you see this as a springboard, or is this its own thing?
I can’t imagine springboarding to something else right now! Really, I’m passionate about education and young people and their future. That’s my motivation for running, that’s what I’ve been committed to for the past 20 years, and I really can’t see beyond that.
You already have the endorsement of the teachers union. In the light of the really big divide between the union and the district, will you do anything to try and close that divide?
I can only be effective if I help to close that gap and get everyone working together in the same room. And, ultimately, that’s where they’re going to be: working together, because both sides want what’s in the best interests of the children.
There’s no choice but to get together. Am I the person with the existing skills and ability to do that? Yes!
You have a magic wand and you can wave it and make things happen, regardless of cost or practicality. What do you do to change local schools?
We have a disparity of resources and resource allocation. I want that to not exist anymore.
And I want parents to be empowered and involved like they are at some schools, in real partnerships for education.
The primary issue facing the district is a financial one. What would be your approach to understanding, getting to grips with and ultimately solving the budget issues at the district?
One of them would be looking at some model programs, in terms of how the budget has been handled in other districts. One district that has done an amazing job is the San Diego Community College District where I work.
I know there’s an opportunity for me to exercise some leadership there in looking at best practices. So I would start there.
I’m really reluctant to talk about efficiency, because I really don’t think there’s any more blood in that turnip right about now. We have to bring in new revenue, bottom-line.
There has to be transparency. Making sure that everyone knows what the budget is is key.
If the stakeholders know what the budget is, they can be more supportive, more collaborative, think of new ideas. They’re not stuck on efficiency issues.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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