San Diego Unified plainly lays out the expectations for the school board and its president. The president, elected by other trustees, will lead the board and serve as its spokesperson.

A district ethics memo goes further: Board members are to build public trust, avoid conflicts of interest, refrain from using their positions for personal gain and adhere to the highest standards of transparency.

But as board president, Marne Foster regularly refuses to talk to media and has been absent from debates and interviews. She held a private fundraiser for her sons, advertising the event on a district website, and spread word through her professional connections – raising concerns about whether she was trying to leverage her political position for personal gain.

A principal says Foster used political muscle to meddle in affairs and end her job at the school.

Yet, Foster has been a consistent voice for black students who have been chronically over-punished and undereducated for decades in San Diego. She has had major impact on schools in her area.

Colleagues and supporters credit her for bringing a program that offers college credit to students at Lincoln High – a school that has sputtered academically for the past eight years, making incremental gains despite regular promises from officials they’d soon turn things around.

Allies describe Foster as genuine, passionate, apolitical and unafraid to use her experience as a mother and a black woman from San Diego to fight for equity.

But what appear to be her strongest assets may also be her biggest shortcomings. Even those who support her admit she makes decisions as a mother without consideration of her position on the school board.

In a year, Foster will up for re-election. She has started to campaign, and a challenger has yet to emerge. Without a strong opponent, she will likely to cruise to another four years on a school board that serves 130,000 students.

‘Nobody’s Puppet’

Foster’s sub-district, which covers a swath of the city’s southeastern neighborhoods, has historically been the seat of black political power in San Diego.

Demographics have shifted in recent years. As black families moved out, Latino and Asian families moved in. But it remains, symbolically, the center of the black community.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

So it was in 2011, when former school board trustee Shelia Jackson represented this area. Jackson, who had served on the board since 2004, was known for her outspoken style. After controversies – including voting on a contract that would benefit her daughter, and questions about whether she lived in the area she represented – Jackson announced she would not seek re-election.

Bill Ponder was first to throw in his hat. He seemed to fit the profile. He was a former university administrator, and a member of the American Federation of Teachers, a major labor union.

But Ponder said he told union leaders who vetted his candidacy that he wasn’t afraid to challenge labor if they made unreasonable demands. And that, he said, would be his downfall.

“I told [the union] something that scared them: I said I wasn’t interested in running for higher officer. I was just interested in being on the school board.” he said. “They didn’t like that. They wanted someone whose votes they could tie up for the next 10 years.”

Around the same time, a relatively unknown name would emerge: Marne Foster. She served on the governing board of the AFT and was a teacher in the San Diego Community College District.

Richard Barrera recruited her. At the time, Barrera already had a spot on the San Diego Unified school board, and served as a labor organizer. He is now the leader of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

Barrera said he was taken by Foster’s passion and vision, and persuaded her to run. She, too, fit the ticket. She was black, a mother and from a southeastern San Diego neighborhood. And she had an ally Ponder didn’t: Jim Mahler.

Mahler, president of a teachers union that represents community college educators, is a behind-the-scenes power-broker. His resume boasts his record directing political campaigns, replacing incumbent school board members with labor candidates: “35 successful wins in a row” it reads.

With Mahler and Barrera’s greenlight, and an endorsement from the union that represents the district’s teachers – the San Diego Education Association – Foster trounced Ponder on her way to the school board.

In terms of harmony, Foster has in fact been a good choice. San Diego Unified’s labor-heavy board has been able to pass policies and avoid frequent infighting that plagues other school districts. The current five-person board is composed entirely of union-backed trustees.

When I asked Barrera if he helped stock the board with labor votes by design, he laughed.

“Marne’s nobody’s puppet,” he said. “And neither is anybody else on the school board.”

Mahler didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Lincoln Experiments

On the first day of the 2014-2015 school year, cheerleaders cheered, staff was all smiles and district officials wore their finest.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It was a new day at Lincoln High. The school had been rebuilt in 2007 and yet still had not found its footing. The school was now offering students a chance to earn college credit right on campus.

Foster had been the plan’s loudest champion, pushing for the kind of program that had proven successful elsewhere in the district.

Thanks to her advocacy, and her declaration that Lincoln High was in a state of crisis, she persuaded Superintendent Cindy Marten and school board colleagues to free up $700,000 and kick-start the program at a time when the district was scrambling to plug budget holes.

Rev. Gerald Brown is executive director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council, a social justice advocacy group in southeastern San Diego.

To Brown and others in the area, this is Foster’s crowning achievement.

Not long after the opening day pep rally at Lincoln, however, the smiles faded. Old problems re-emerged: fights, under-enrollment and the realization of just how academically disjointed the school had grown in recent years.

By the end of the year, 120 students had taken classes at Lincoln for college credit. Of the students who participated, 97 percent passed. It’s a very small portion of the 1,500 students at the school – less than 10 percent.

Lincoln remains one of the lowest-performing high schools in the district. Numbers from 2013-2014, the most recent data available, show nearly 70 percent of Lincoln graduates that year did not have the grades or classes they needed to get into University of California or California State University schools.

The dilemma grows more urgent this year, when those college-entrance classes also become a high school graduation requirement.

Still, Brown is encouraged by the fact that Lincoln students now have access to college courses.

“Was the [program] there when [Foster] came into office? No. But it is now. We have to look at how far we’ve come since she started,” Brown said.

But to Wendell Bass, once principal of Lincoln High, progress hasn’t been made fast enough – not just for kids at Lincoln, but for black students districtwide.

As a longtime educator who stayed involved in the community after he retired, Bass said he has heard too many promises made, task forces formed, blueprints created – and watched it be met with lip service from the district.

“We say we’ve made progress if 70 percent of the kids can read. Or 80 percent or 90. But how much failure is acceptable? I don’t have time, at my age, to be playing these games with numbers,” said Bass. “We need to set the target at 100 percent, then make it happen.”

Yet, Bass supports Foster, and says it would be unfair to put this on any one board member.

“I’m not going to sit here and bash the only black school board member up there. That’s racist. One thing I’ll say about Foster is that she’s the only one who takes up the flag,” Bass said.

Testing Boundaries

Supporters credit Lincoln High’s changes to Foster.

But enemies will define Foster’s tenure by what happened at another school, the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

SCPA is a competitive magnet school in the Paradise Hills neighborhood. Students audition to enter. Between 2007 and 2014, middling test scores rose to upper-tier.

Mitzi Lizarraga was principal during that time. Lizarraga was well-connected. An NYU alum, her resume includes a stint at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a prestigious arts school in Washington D.C.

Foster’s son was a student at SCPA. She and Lizarraga did not get along.

As Lizarraga tells it, Foster used her position on the school board to push for special treatment for her son.

It started when Foster handpicked a counselor for her son, a woman with whom Foster had a good relationship. Instead of requesting that counselor, as most parents would do, Foster demanded her, Lizarraga said.

Foster continued to push boundaries. Lizarraga said teachers complained Foster pressured them to change grades, or tweak attendance records.

The problem came to a head as students sent out college applications. The school uses a common application to make it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges. Part of that package asks for letters of reference from counselors.

This is where the stories diverge. According to Lizarraga, as the application deadline drew near, it looked like Foster’s assigned counselor wasn’t going to submit the letter in time.

So the school’s head counselor wrote the letter instead. It was not a good letter. The counselor wrote there was no basis to recommend Foster’s son to college – the lowest, most unfavorable rating possible.

Reference letters are to be kept private. Neither parents nor school board members have access to them. But someone leaked it to Foster. Nobody will say who was responsible for the leak.

Foster blames Lizarraga for the letter.

“I believe [Lizarraga] conspired with the counselor to retaliate against me,” Foster told me last month.

“That’s a blatant lie,” Lizarraga said. “I would never do anything to hurt these kids.”

Lizarraga said she in fact went out of her way to recommend Foster’s son to connections she had at NYU and Juilliard, two prestigious performing arts schools.

The letter would later become the basis of a legal claim the father of Foster’s son made against the district. He asked for $250,000 to compensate for the potential scholarship money the bad reference cost him. The district later dismissed the claim, and awarded no money. Foster told the San Diego Union-Tribune she had no connection to the legal claim.

It did not end there.

Lizarraga said as the 2013-2014 school year drew to a close, Foster’s son had unresolved behavioral issues. Students have to meet with a school committee to review the issues before they’re allowed to participate in end-of-the-year activities. Foster’s son did not appear for the review, Lizarraga said. For that, he couldn’t go to prom – the same consequences students in similar situations face.

Not long after, Lamont Jackson, the area superintendent responsible for the school, requested a meeting with Lizarraga. He was there to tell her Foster’s son would be attending the dance, she said.

“At that point, I just threw my hands up and said, ‘Fine. I’m so sick of Marne Foster. I’m tired of her throwing her weight around and her thinking the rules don’t apply to her,’” Lizarraga said.

She said she was shocked by what came next.

“He said, ‘Good. Now that that’s resolved, let’s talk about where you’re going to be next year. We have some questions about your leadership at this school,’ ” Lizarraga said.

Lizarraga would not complete the year. Jackson asked for her keys to the school, she said, and she was not allowed to attend the school’s graduation ceremony. In the coming weeks, district officials would create a role for her and assign her to a leadership position in the district’s visual and performing arts department – which already had a director.

“If the district had questions about my leadership, why would they turn around and assign me to a district leadership position?” Lizarraga said.

The ordeal was investigated by members of the San Diego County Grand Jury. Its subsequent report, filed last May, said evidence suggested a school board member used her power to intimidate school staff and influence decisions on staff dismissals. In its response to the report, San Diego Unified said last week the Grand Jury failed to prove any of its allegations; therefore, the district would implement none their recommendations.

In late 2014, Lizarraga left the district. She is now the head of a distinguished arts school in Los Angeles.

“I’m 100 percent sure Marne Foster is the reason I’m not at SCPA,” Lizarraga said.

But Lizarraga said Jackson, Foster’s colleagues on the school board and Marten were all complicit in Foster’s overreach.

“Lamont Jackson is the henchman that was too interested in wanting to build his fucking career. Cindy Marten doesn’t know anything about secondary schools, as evidenced by last year,” she said.

Jackson did not respond to a request for comment.

‘A Mother First’

Candidates don’t have to be good with the media or accessible to win a school board race. Foster proved this.

Leading up to her election, she was absent from debates, missed forums and skipped an interview with the U-T editorial board. Since then, she hasn’t deviated much from that pattern.

Her silence may not have hurt her politically, but it hasn’t made her an effective spokesperson, one of her duties as board president.

Foster did not agree to an interview for this story, but in the past she has said she doesn’t trust the media.

Brown said Foster is simply a private person who doesn’t air her personal business.

“Unfortunately, African-American politicians tend to be under more scrutiny. Would you be writing this story if Foster wasn’t black?” Brown said. “While it’s very subtle, it still speaks to institutional racism.”

(This is my second in-depth profile of a school board member.)

Multiple people interviewed for this story expressed similar sentiments.

But another element works against Foster. She can be painfully awkward in a public setting.

Yet, talking with children, or discussing race, Foster settles in. Her voice grows strong and confident. Her points become clear.

“Marne’s an incredibly effective communicator if she can just focus on the issues that really matter to her,” Barrera said. “In the community setting, in churches, it all just flows. I think when she feels she’s in a political context, that’s when she feels stifled.”

Tony Young, a lobbyist and former City Council president, knows Foster from her work with community organizations and nonprofits.

Young supports Foster, and said he’s watched her gain some political chops in the past few years. Even so, he sees room for her to mature as a public official.

“It’s almost like she hasn’t fully accepted her position on the board, or understood the responsibilities that come along with that,” Young said. “So she acts like a mom, because that’s what she’s always known. And she might not understand that being a mom can conflict with her responsibilities as a public official. I don’t know if she understands how other people could have a problem with that either.”

That interpretation is as generous as Foster could ask for.

Even as Foster was in the spotlight for her actions at her son’s school, facing questions about how she wielded her influence, she hosted a fundraising event to benefit her sons.

Foster spread the event through her networks online, invited connections who had business before the school board and told donors the money would be tax-deductible because it would flow through a nonprofit. A week after VOSD broke the story, the San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out Foster had also used the district’s website and official logo to promote the event.

On Aug. 10, the state attorney general’s office sent a letter to the nonprofit asking for proof that funds were raised in accordance with state law. If the nonprofit does not respond by Sept. 9, the case will be referred to the district attorney, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Foster said she only raised about $4,000 – a modest sum. But, intentionally or otherwise, Foster contradicted board policy by using her influence to benefit her family.

Even Barrera said he would have advised her to handle the situation differently had she asked.

“I would have said, ‘Be thoughtful about how word gets out. If people want to support the kids, that’s one thing. But be thoughtful about putting people in a position where it looks like they’re courting influence – or where they can actually court influence,’” Barrera said.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and vice president of the L.A. Ethics Commission, was more frank.

“What she did was clearly inappropriate,” she said. “I mean, is it treason? No. But when we take a step back and look at why we even create ethical rules, they’re meant for situations like this.”

When Foster talked to me last month, she chalked any issues with the fundraiser and the Grand Jury report up to people who spread misinformation for political gain. A counselor wrote a letter that hurt her son, she said, but nobody is asking questions about that.

“For a victim to be victimized is just insane to me. And that actually happened. That really showed me the type of evil people are capable of,” she said.

She said she did nothing wrong in either situation.

“I’m a politician, because that’s the job I said yes to. But I’m a mother first, who loves her children dearly,” she said. “Different from some people, I do fear one person. I fear God. That’s who I’m concerned about and that’s who I answer to. That’s just my moral compass.”

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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