Only a few days into her term as superintendent of San Diego schools, Cindy Marten, the former elementary school principal, is making tough personnel calls as she elevates some principals and explains to communities why others may need to be reassigned.
Fifteen principals retired at the end of the school year. In recent weeks, the district announced that seven more principals were reassigned. Marten said the reassignment process was already under way when she took over district leadership last week.
Andra Donovan, who started as general counsel for the district on July 1, said reassignments don’t necessarily mean a principal is being let go, but it does usually mean that they are being moved from their current job. The seven who were reassigned did not have a new assignment yet, because those decisions are not final.
But that has not spared Marten from tough conversations with concerned parents.
In at least one case, at Burbank Elementary, the principal, Carolina Flores-Wittman, said she wanted to remain but was given the choice of going back to teaching or retiring. Parents and staff were shocked to learn that news. They held signs to show support and spoke on her behalf at the board meeting on June 25 to praise Flores-Wittman’s leadership.
Burbank’s test scores have risen in recent years, leaving parents and teachers wondering why Flores-Wittman was reassigned.
On July 5, Marten came to Burbank to listen to parents and teachers, many of whom pleaded with her to allow Flores-Wittman to remain.
“I’ve got three little ones right here, who are doing great,” said parent Raul Valenzuela. “They’re exceeding what I thought they were going to be able to do because of the teamwork supervised by that lady, that’s why I took the time to come over here, because I’ve got a whole bunch of other stuff to do.”
Flores-Wittman had not planned to attend the community meeting, but Marten spoke privately with her before the meeting and persuaded her to come, asking her to sit next to her while they listened to speakers.
Parent Antero Cruz Valledares spoke to the gathering in Spanish, telling them that he volunteers to maintain the school’s grounds twice a week. Fifth grade teacher Sam Avalos translated.
“I want the best for my children. I ask the superintendent to please consider what I’m saying. I’d like to express myself better. I am an illiterate person, but I am not an ignorant person. All the children need for the principal to stay here,” Cruz said.
Marten listened to all speakers, then addressed the group.
“It’s only my fourth day on the job and to make any decision without knowing a community is impossible. I don’t make decisions behind a desk, I make decisions understanding a community that I serve,” she said.
Although she was asked directly by Avalos, the moderator and fifth grade teacher, to keep Flores-Wittman as Burbank’s principal, Marten made no promises. “I leave today holding you and your hopes and your wishes and your dreams for your children in my heart. Your principal and I are going to continue to talk as we hold in our heart what your community needs.”
Marten told VOSD the decision to reassign Flores-Wittman was made long before she became superintendent on July 1.
“I have a vacancy at a school that I love,” Marten said. “I want to make sure that I find the right leader for that school so that they can continue the gains they’ve already made.”
Flores-Wittman was hired to lead Burbank through a transformation after the school received a School Improvement Grant, which brought $4 million in state money aimed at improving test scores and closing the achievement gap. Burbank, located in Logan Heights, has a population of 95 percent Hispanic/Latino students, 68 percent of whom are English-language learners. Burbank teachers spoke about how the changes implemented at the school had not only improved student test scores, but also boosted teacher morale and family involvement.
Marten told the gathered parents and teachers that Burbank is much like her former school, Central Elementary. She said Flores-Wittman visited her to seek guidance in starting a biliteracy program at Burbank.
Principal reassignments across San Diego Unified have triggered some concern.
“It’s not really what I expected,” said Lisa Berlanga, executive director of UP for Ed, a parent advocacy organization. For her, the principal shuffle has brought back memories of the Alan Bersin superintendency. During that time, more than a dozen principals were fired.
In an April 30 interview with Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis, Marten suggested that could happen.
“It’s my stance and my leadership voice that will help shape the type of culture and climate that I want to create across a district and it starts with quality principals in every school.”
As some principals await new assignments, others are joining Marten’s newly created Office of Leadership Development. Leading them will be Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Jim Solo, who will serve as executive director of leadership development. Tavga Bustani, principal most recently of Hamilton Elementary and previously of Edison Elementary, was appointed to the new position of mentor principal. She will help train new principals who will be starting in September as a result of the wave of retirements and reassignments. Staci Monreal, former principal of Marshall Elementary, is now Marten’s chief of staff.
“It’s definitely a ripple effect,” said district spokesperson Linda Zintz.
Bustani will receive the principal salary plus an extra $1,000 monthly stipend. Zintz said some vice principals will be appointed as first-time principals and some principals will move from elementary to secondary schools. “This is somebody who will be there to mentor them through the beginning, it’s somebody who can provide additional support to these new or fairly new principals,” Zintz said.
Matching qualified principal candidates with schools that have openings before school starts on Sept. 3 will be a huge endeavor. The district will invite parents and staff of the affected schools to take part in the search. Getting teachers, staff and parents to attend interviews during summer vacation may not be easy, but “they will definitely be included in the decision of who takes the new leadership role at the school,” Zintz said.
Within the last month, new principals have been appointed at Point Loma High, John Muir School, Taft, Montgomery and Farb middle schools, Bethune, Central, Franklin, Hamilton, Hickman, Jerabek and Wegeforth elementary schools. More assignments are expected to be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday night.