The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


This week has been all about Marne Foster.

I kicked things off with a profile on San Diego Unified’s school board president, and found her greatest strengths – her passion, apolitical style and experience advocating for her children – are also her biggest shortcomings. Even her supporters say she can make decisions as a mother without considering how they might create conflicts of interest with her position on the school board.

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One situation in particular highlights that tension: a leadership struggle at the School of Performing Arts, where the former principal, Mitzi Lizarraga, says a row with Foster cost her job.

Foster’s son, who was then a student at SCPA, is at the eye of the drama. Lizarraga says Foster pushed for special treatment for her son, then got her axed when she didn’t abide. Foster says Lizarraga started it – she’s the one who made Foster’s son a target of her personal vendetta.

The situation at SCPA was an unholy mess, and more details will undoubtedly surface.

In the meantime, a question a reader sent in lends itself particularly well to understanding the bigger picture.

Question: How does Marne Foster escape any ramifications for removing the principal at the School of Creative and Performing Arts? – Paul Tessaro, interested reader

Granted, the question is loaded. It assumes that Foster in fact had Lizarraga removed, and this has not been proven. But consider this: Paul submitted this question two months ago. A perception that Foster acted improperly existed before I’d written a lick about SCPA.

Before anyone can be held accountable, we have to know what even happened. That’s been the biggest problem. Various attempts to tell the story lacked key witnesses, like Lizarraga, who was reluctant to speak publicly about it until very recently.

Civil Grand Jury members conducted an investigation, reportedly talked with a slew of witnesses and gathered evidence. But the ensuing report didn’t include any names, which made the narrative muddy and confusing.

Lack of specifics made it easy for the district to say the report didn’t prove anything improper happened; therefore, it would take no corrective action.

One difficulty for journalists has been the fact that most of the allegations leveled against Foster concern employees and her son, who was a student at the time. That means many details are shielded from public records laws.

There’s legal justification for not disclosing information on student and personnel matters. But it’s also convenient for the district to withhold all information using this rationale.

There’s also the recent fundraiser Foster held for her sons. Here’s a section from my recent profile:

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.

This raises another set of ethical and legal concerns. But let’s set aside Foster for now, and think more generally about repercussions that school board members who step out of line could face.

Board governance policy outlines acceptable conduct pretty simply. I’ll just leave a snippet of that right here.


You get it. No need for me to walk through that. The question is: What happens if board members violate those things?

Not much, apparently.


School board members better fly straight, or they’ll a) get a stern talking-to in private; b) get a stern talking-to in private, with other board members; c) be removed from leadership roles or committees or d) get a public reprimand.

Let’s look at the last one. “Censure” is a kind of public shaming, voted on by members of the board, which essentially means group majority agrees you behaved badly.

District spokesperson Ursula Kroemer and Cheryl Ward, a senior manager, could only recall one time this ever happened, back in 2004, to former trustee Fran Zimmerman.

During a board meeting, Zimmerman compared school reformers – looking to convert some district schools into charters – to Jews in Nazi Germany who led their own people off to death camps.

It was a crass thing to say, particularly considering the fact that then-superintendent Alan Bersin, general counsel Tad Parzen and school board president Ron Ottinger are all Jewish. (As a general rule of thumb, if you’re ever in an argument, and find yourself about to compare something, anything, to Nazi Germany, just stop).

“It was a very contentious time,” Parzen recalls. “Zimmerman was very anti-Bersin. Very anti-charter. Very anti.”

Today, Zimmerman dismisses the process as a political one. “‘Censure’ is a hostile public gesture based on fact or fiction, and has no practical teeth,” she told me.

Regardless, Ottinger initiated the official reprimand, which passed with board majority. Then they all carried on with life.

A censure remains an option for school boards members who behave badly. Parzen said trustees can’t vote other members off the board. That would have broad ramifications – imagine if a government body could throw a dissenting member off the board just because they were unpopular.

More serious sanctions would likely have to come from an outside entity, like government ethics investigators, or the district or city attorney if a crime had been committed.

An ethics violation would most likely result in a fine, Parzen said. It’s not uncommon for government officials to get dinged for an ethics violation, pay the fine, then continue to serve.

Depending on the severity of a school board member’s misdeeds, a prosecutor could initiate criminal proceedings. Officials can’t hold public office in California if they’re convicted of a felony, but a misdemeanor doesn’t automatically preclude them from serving. Officials get DUIs for example, and carry on with public duties.

There are two more possible sanctions, driven largely by the public. Outcry could grow so loud that a school board member resigns, or members of the public could initiate a recall petition. Both have recently happened in San Diego County.

Jose Barajas, who had been a trustee for San Ysidro School District, tendered his resignation this week after he was served with recall papers – for the second time.

A 2013 recall effort followed a controversial move by Barajas and other board members to approve a severance package for the former superintendent, “who left the district amid corruption charges and eventually served two months in federal prison,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Reminder: One Voice at a Time

In case you haven’t heard, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber will be joining us Sept. 15 to help kick off the school year with a conversation about good schools, quality teaching and how we can have more of both.

Weber’s a leading voice in California’s education landscape. Not only is she a longtime educator, she’s also weighed in as a legislator on some of the most controversial topics facing schools: teacher tenure, dismissal policies, evaluations – issues at the center of the landmark Vergara v. California case.

If you haven’t yet saved your seat for our upcoming conversation, you’re going to want to jump on that. The event is free and open to the public. Reserve your free ticket here.

Ed Reads of the Week

• State removes 15 years of test results before releasing new scores (EdSource)

If you’re a San Diego Unified parent, you might remember receiving a letter from Superintendent Cindy Marten last spring, gently urging you to not freak out when you see your kid’s most recent test scores.

It’s a pattern across California. In preparation for the release of the new test scores, the first results since schools moved to Common Core standards, districts and public relations teams have been strategizing on how to brace the public for scores they expect to be low.

But the state department of education just took it up a notch: They deleted the old test scores to make it harder for people to compare results from the new test to the old ones.

To be sure, the two tests are nothing alike. Results should not be compared in an apples-to-apples sort of way. But it’s one thing to remind people of this. It’s another to hide the data all together.

• Standardized Test Revolt (Mother Jones)

I don’t like the fact the state of California just made it harder to find test data. It’s as if state education officials don’t trust us to weigh information and arrive at our own conclusions.

On the other hand, there’s a need to have a deep conversation about the role of standardized tests. More than ever, students are simply throwing up their hands and refusing to put pencil to paper.

It’s understandable. According to Kristina Rizga, author of the new book “Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Student and Teachers Who Made It Triumph“:

“Students in American public schools today take more standardized tests than their peers in any other industrialized country. A 2014 survey of 14 large districts by the Center for American Progress found that third- to eighth-graders take 10 standardized tests each year on average, and some take up to 20. By contrast, students in Europe rarely encounter multiple-choice questions in their national assessments and instead write essays that are graded by trained educator.”

We Americans love our tests. The challenge is finding the line between assessments and over-testing.

• Arizona Author Objects to Abstinence Stickers on Son’s Biology Textbooks, Gets Hounded Off the Internet (Slate)
One school district in suburban Phoenix prefers childbirth and adoption over abortion. Just so there’s no confusion, it emblazoned the back of high school textbooks with a sticker that says so.

Apparently, this was the most politic of other options floated – like redacting pages containing information about birth control, or tearing them out altogether.

When one parent, a writer with a large Twitter following, blasted her disgust over the stickers – she was booed off the internet. Let’s say a silent prayer for her, and other rational members of the Phoenix community.

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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