Image: Huckster Propaganda

Statement: “[H]e became vice-principal at a middle school. But he was fired as an ‘ineffective campus leader,’” states a mailer paid for by the American Federation of Teachers.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

Analysis: A campaign mailer I received through my door last week makes several bold claims about San Diego Unified school board candidate Mark Powell, who is running against current school board member John Lee Evans.

“Mark Powell began his career in law enforcement,” the mailer begins. “But he didn’t like being around criminals.”

That’s bold, but it’s pretty impossible to fact-check. Powell certainly once worked in law enforcement; he shared that with me during our interview earlier this year. But only Powell really knows why he decided to move on.

The second claim in the mailer, however, is one we decided to give further scrutiny:

“Then he became a vice-principal at a middle school,” the mailer states. “But he was fired as an ‘ineffective campus leader.’”

I don’t know where the Associated Federation of Teachers, which paid for the mailer, got the “ineffective campus leader,” quote. I called them and emailed them, but they didn’t get back to me.

The statement that Powell was fired is untrue.

In 1999, Powell was one of 15 school principals and vice principals reassigned as part of a controversial shake-up by then-superintendent Alan Bersin. The 15 administrators were demoted to classroom teaching jobs.

“I was never fired, that’s a bunch of B.S.,” said Powell. “If I was fired, why did I continue teaching? Why was I sent a paycheck every month?”

Powell provided us with this letter from the school district, dated June 16, 1999, which states that he will be assigned a teaching position. It says nothing about being “fired.” Nor does it use the phrase “ineffective campus leader.”

We’re calling this one huckster propaganda. To meet this, our harshest of ratings, a statement must pass a two-stage test: First, the statement must be inaccurate; second, it must be reasonable to expect that the person or organization making the statement knew it was inaccurate, but made the claim anyway to gain an advantage.

The statement is false. But is it reasonable to believe that the American Federation of Teachers knew that? And did the union use the statement anyway to gain an advantage?

The issue of the reassigned administrators was a big deal in San Diego education in 1999, and remained a big deal for years.

Eleven of the demoted administrators launched a lawsuit against San Diego Unified claiming that they had been unfairly demoted. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote several stories about the fight between the group and the district. When the administrators won their lawsuit against the district five years later, it was also big news.

“This was huge,” said Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, a member of the school board at the time.

This is also an issue Powell has talked about several times on the campaign trail. He spoke about it in his introductory speech at our Politifest debate in September, and said he was reassigned, not fired.

The authors of the mailer must have done at least some research into Powell’s history, since they knew something happened that took him out of his position as a vice principal and put him back in the classroom as a teacher. The scantest of research would reveal that Powell was reassigned, not fired.

It’s therefore reasonable to believe the authors of the mailer knew that Powell was reassigned, but chose to use the word “fired” because that makes Powell look worse — to gain an advantage in a mailer attacking Powell’s credibility.

The irony here is that Powell says he was reassigned because he fundamentally disagreed with Bersin’s policies and made that clear as a vice principal. He has sought to portray himself as standing up against Bersin’s leadership style.

“Two things are going to happen if you stand up to Alan Bersin,” he said at the Politifest debate. “You’re going to get reassigned, or you’re going to get reassigned.”

In the history of local teachers unions, Bersin is as close to a bogeyman as they come. Local education unions detested his policies and fought tooth-and-nail to get rid of him.

“We disliked him,” said Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association. “We didn’t like his policies, especially his top-down system of management.”

Only Bersin and those involved in the decision to shuffle Powell know for sure whether Powell’s explanation for his reassignment is correct — and I hope they’ll contact me and let me know.

But it is clear that Powell was demoted by a superintendent who was reviled by the teachers unions.

It’s ironic that a teachers union is seeking to use that demotion to attack Powell.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at or 619.550.5670.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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