It’s been about a year since Mitzi Lizarraga, the well-regarded principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, left San Diego Unified. In that time, the story of exactly what happened has been muddy and incomplete – but a clearer picture is finally starting to emerge.
District officials never gave a definitive reason as to why Lizarraga was removed as principal of the competitive magnet school in the Paradise Hills neighborhood. Lizarraga didn’t talk publicly about it until she spoke to me last week.
School board president Marne Foster didn’t even confirm she was the subject of a civil Grand Jury report pegged to the leadership shakeup until we spoke recently.
Here’s what we know.
Foster’s son was a student at SCPA. Foster and Lizarraga did not like each other. This is one of the few things on which they agree.
Lizarraga said Foster regularly used her position on the school board to push for special treatment for her son. She pressured his teachers to tweak grades and attendance records, Lizarraga said, and demanded a counselor for her son with whom she had a personal relationship. That counselor’s name is Megan Blum.
A key moment came during the 2013-2014 school year, when students were preparing to send out college applications. As part of the application process, counselors submit reference letters on students’ behalf, attesting to their skills and prospects.
Lizarraga said students’ assigned counselors are normally those who write the letters. But in the case of Foster’s son, the school’s head counselor, Kim Abagat, wrote it instead. It was not a good letter. Abagat wrote there was “no basis” to recommend the student for college.
Those letters are to be kept private. Parents and school board members don’t have access to them. But someone leaked it to Foster.
Foster thinks Abagat and Lizarraga conspired to write the letter in retaliation for personal conflicts.
“There’s a point where folks just wholly cross the line,” Foster told me recently. “If someone is upset with me, right, wrong or indifferent, and they want to try to harm me, that’s one thing. But try to go after and try to hurt and harm someone’s son, someone’s child, that’s really bad.”
Lizarraga has a much different version of what happened. She called Foster’s accusation “a blatant lie.”
She said as the deadline for college applications drew near, it looked like Blum wouldn’t submit the letter in time. So Abagat called Foster and asked if she could write the letter on her son’s behalf, Lizarraga said.
“Marne told her, ‘Yes, go ahead. It takes a village,’” Lizarraga said. “Sure, it takes a village – until you don’t like what that village thinks of your kid.”
The father of Foster’s son later filed a claim against the district, asking for $250,000 to compensate for the scholarship money he claimed the letter cost his son. The district dismissed that claim, and awarded no money.
“I’m not a party to that claim,” Foster told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “As a district official, I can’t comment on it.”
Still unresolved is the question of how Foster got hold of the letter in the first place.
Lizarraga suspects Blum, who has since transferred to Clairemont High. The district won’t say why Blum changed schools, citing personnel matters.
Blum wrote in an email that it would be inappropriate for her to discuss private student-parent concerns.
Lizarraga thinks the letter was one big reason why, late in the school year, area superintendent Lamont Jackson came to tell her she would no longer be the school’s principal.
At Foster’s urging, Jackson questioned her leadership, asked for her keys and told her she wasn’t welcome at the school’s graduation ceremony, Lizarraga said.
Doug Porter at the San Diego Free Press had a daughter who attended SCPA at the time. Porter wrote last year about showing up to the ceremony and not seeing the principal. Students and staff were told only that Lizarraga was attending to an urgent personal matter, he wrote:
“But some seniors weren’t buying it. Graduation, usually one the high points in the life of a high school student, was fraught with rumors and dissension. Some seniors were talking about boycotting the ceremony. Other seniors wanted to hold up signs. Students were upset, some even in tears. Parents were in disbelief and did not understand what was happening.”
After making clear that Lizarraga would not be returning, the district asked SCPA parents to help pick the next principal. That display of collaboration didn’t win over many parents.
“If we have a say in the community, we want Mitzi back,” one parent told the Times of San Diego.
Frank Engle, an SCPA parent and longtime volunteer, was so offended by Lizarraga’s ouster he started a blog to highlight what he sees as mendacity and corruption on the part of Foster and Superintendent Cindy Marten, who he says was complicit in Lizarraga’s removal.
“San Diego Unified Trustee Marne Foster FUNDRAISER COVER UP: EPIC FAIL!!!” reads one typical headline. (Hell hath no fury like a parent whose favorite principal has been reassigned.)
Officials would eventually create for Lizarraga a district leadership position in the visual and performing arts department. She stayed in that role for a few short months, working on various projects, until she accepted a position as head of a prestigious performing arts school in Los Angeles.
If Lizarraga’s version of the story is true, Foster abused her authority on the school board to influence decisions that benefited her family.
But if Foster is right – and the Grand Jury report was a fabrication by her political enemies – that deserves to be aired, too. Despite the report, no opponent has emerged so far to challenge Foster in next year’s election.
Foster told me in the past she did nothing wrong at SCPA or with the fundraiser she held for her sons.
She did acknowledge she has one flaw, however. Her weakness, she said, is that she is too passionate and cares too much.