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One more person has stepped forward with an account of what happened at the School of Creative and Performing Arts that contradicts the version offered by School Board President Marne Foster.
The school’s principal was abruptly removed at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, and speculation about what exactly happened has swirled ever since.
Foster’s son attended the school at the time, and former principal Mitzi Lizarraga has said Foster overstepped her bounds as an elected official in order to obtain special treatment for her son. When Lizarraga objected, she was removed, she said.
While it lacked specific names, a report by the civil Grand Jury arrived at a similar conclusion. District officials dismissed the report, writing that it proved no wrongdoing had occurred.
Now, Kim Abagat is adding her voice to the growing chorus against Foster. Abagat is the head counselor at SCPA. She was suspended for nine days after writing an evaluation of Foster’s son the school board trustee did not like.
School counselors are the ones who complete an evaluation form – attesting to students’ talents – which are then sent to prospective colleges.
In boxes where counselors rate students in terms of academics, extracurricular activities and character, Abagat listed Foster’s son as average or above average. But she checked a box that indicated there was “no basis” to recommend him to college.
Abagat said she thought she was doing the student a favor by not recounting in detail his documented behavioral problems.
In response to one question – “What are the first words that come to your mind to describe this student” – Abagat wrote one word: “Complicated.”
The letter kicked off problems for Abagat. In the days after she submitted it, emails show, her access to the college application system was cut off. She could no longer send out recommendation letters on students’ behalf.
Another counselor, Megan Blum, wrote a new evaluation for Foster’s son to replace the negative one. Blum listed the student as “Outstanding (top 5%)” and “Top Few (top 1%).”
It was a remarkably different interpretation of the same student and grade point average.
In a section that asks counselors whether the student had ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation, Blum marked: No. Abagat had left the box blank.
Of the two evaluations, Blum’s was the most peculiar — it listed Foster’s son as being in the top 5 percent of students academically though he appeared to be ranked 100th out of 147 students in his class.
Yet it was Abagat who soon became the focus of an internal investigation. An investigator contracted by the school district questioned her. In the end, she admitted to not properly consulting with all stakeholders before she submitted the letter.
Abagat says she reluctantly agreed to avoid stiffer sanctions. A letter obtained by VOSD, written by the district’s human services director, shows that Abagat was suspended for nine days. Abagat said it was unpaid and cost her roughly $6,000.
“I was punished for telling the truth,” she said. She still works at SCPA, but said she’s fearful she will lose her job for describing what happened.
Counselor vs. Counselor
One irony in the mess is that Abagat wasn’t supposed to write the evaluation to begin with.
Abagat said she should have been assigned to be Foster’s son’s counselor. Her caseload typically includes his age group.
But Foster’s son had been assigned to another counselor, Blum, at the beginning of the year, at Foster’s request.
Foster did not respond to requests for comment. When I asked Foster last month why Abagat had written the letter, instead of Blum, Foster said: “I believe [Lizarraga] conspired with the counselor to retaliate against me.”
Abagat says that’s a lie. She said Foster asked her to write it because it looked like Blum was going to miss the submission deadline.
An email obtained by VOSD shows that Foster at least knew Abagat was helping her son complete the application.
Months later, the district reassigned the principal, Lizarraga, to an administrative job in the Central Office. She eventually left to take a job as principal of a school in Los Angeles. She claims Foster is the reason she was forced out.
Superintendent Cindy Marten, who is ultimately responsible for that staffing change, has not said why she made the decision.
Marten provided this statement to VOSD:
“As the Superintendent, I am solely responsible for all campus personnel decisions. Our governance policies are very clear; the board sets policies and the Superintendent carries out the policies. This includes all decisions regarding hiring, disciplining and termination of employees.
A few years ago, before I became Superintendent, the board actually removed itself from confirming principal appointments and delegated that authority and responsibility to the Superintendent.
Trustees are free to raise concerns about staffing to me at any time, which Trustee Foster did regarding SCPA. Other trustees have done the same regarding schools in their sub district. However, any staffing changes, such as those made at SCPA, are based on decisions I myself make following the correct internal processes.”
As for Foster, the scrutiny is mounting. Last week she sent out a public apology for making a “Mistake of the Heart” when she used district resources to advertise for a fundraiser that benefited her sons.
She pleaded ignorance in the apology, writing: “it never occurred to me that ‘Marne the Mom’, by supporting an effort to help my sons go to college, was stepping into territory occupied by ‘Marne the Elected Official.’”
Abagat said there were signs of trouble in her very first meeting with Foster, when Foster asked that her son be instead assigned to Blum. Abagat said she told Foster she would discuss a switch with the principal. But Foster was unsatisfied with that response, Abagat recalled.
“She just stood there and looked at me. And then she said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes, you’re Malachi’s mom. I knew what she wanted me to say – that she was on the school board. But I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction,” Abagat said.