Amid the shouting matches, the heated protests and the closed-door school board meetings surrounding discontent at Lincoln High, the various parties seem to roughly agree on one thing: The tensions stem from declining school enrollment, and the loss of funds that comes with it.

The problem is simple. A school receives money based on its student enrollment, and fewer students means less money. Many district schools are facing similar circumstances, but Lincoln has become a focal point of that friction.

Moises Aguirre, San Diego Unified’s director of district relations, says waning resources have become pressure points at the school, as teachers and administration scrap over remaining funds.

Unionized teachers, like former Lincoln High instructor Danny Blas, say principals are retaliating against instructors who criticize the administration for its unilateral decision making.

Another camp, led in part by vocal parent and former attorney Sally Smith, says teachers simply don’t want to be held accountable and are “using students as pawns to push their pro-union agenda — one that protects bad teachers and keeps good ones out.”

Because it’s difficult to find a neutral perspective here, we decided to check out some of the complaints we’ve heard and ask some questions of our own. Here’s some of what we’ve found.

What’s the beef?

Lincoln has lost almost 30 percent of its students since 2009, down from 2,170 in 2009 to 1,569 students in 2013.

Student exodus is a familiar story, but it’s one that has affected Lincoln’s teachers in new ways this year.

Because enrollment determines the number of teachers a school can carry, and because teachers’ contracts protect them from being fired due to a surplus of instructors, extra teachers are shuffled or stand by while the district finds a place for them.

As the U-T recently reported, some of these “excessed” district-teachers were moved to different schools, where needs were determined to be greater. Others, like Blas, reported to empty classrooms — a kind of teacher-purgatory — and looked for ways to be productive, all while collecting a regular paycheck.

All but 19 excessed district-teachers were assigned classes last week, according to the U-T, just in time for the district’s deadline for finalizing teaching assignments.

Where are Lincoln’s students going?

“That’s the $25,000 question,” said Aguirre.

One theory, he said, is that San Diego nearby charter schools, like Gompers Preparatory Academy and E3 Civic High School, may have drawn Lincoln students.

Still, happy students don’t leave schools — especially one like Lincoln, which was rebuilt and started the 2007 school year with a new $129 million facility.  In 2011, former Lincoln principal Mel Collins told KBPS that the school was expected to “rise like a phoenix,” from a blighted neighborhood.

Why are they leaving?

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of the parent-led advocacy group San Diego United Parents for Education, said parents are aware of the Lincoln’s academic reputation and are choosing to send their students to other schools.

“I’d probably do the same thing if I had a kid at Lincoln,” she said.

It’s true: Lincoln students are floundering. In 2012, they scored worse than any school in the district in almost every category of the California Standards Test.

The lone bright spot in Lincoln test scores comes from its math department, which is chaired by Kimberly Samaniego. In just one year, Samaniego and other math teachers raised student proficiency scores by 300 percent.

Samaniego is part of the teacher-minority that supports the new administration. After she appeared at an Oct. 8 school board meeting to defend the school’s principal, she was ostracized by other teachers who called the move “divisive.”

Samaniego says the new administration has attempted to institute a much-needed culture change, but it hasn’t gone smoothly.

“When you bring accountability levels higher, you’re going to have tensions come from different directions,” said Samaniego. “And I think that’s what it comes down to. Change is hard.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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