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Mitzi Lizarraga, the former principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, told me last month that school board president Marne Foster used her influence to meddle in day-to-day operations at her son’s school. Doing so is against board policy. Emails obtained by Voice of San Diego through public records requests show Lizarraga was right.
Foster demanded a copy of a college evaluation written about her son. She requested that a negative evaluation be retracted and replaced with a more positive one. To a senior district official, Foster blamed Lizarraga for the negative evaluation, questioned her leadership abilities, and asked for the email records of individuals she assumed were responsible for the college-reference.
Until now, whether Foster had pressured school or district staff about the issue was a matter of dispute and based on accusations from Lizarraga and others. An earlier Grand Jury report accused Foster of abusing her power to intimidate SCPA staff and meddle in school operations. Foster told Voice of San Diego those allegations were false.
“If you read that report you would think that my son’s counselor wrote a bad report, I was upset, and then heads started rolling. And that’s not at all what happened. At all,” she told me in July.
The emails, however, reveal Foster was furious about her son’s evaluation and demanded action.
Aiding her efforts was Joe Fulcher, the former chief student services officer. Fulcher has since moved to Sweetwater Union High School District. He declined to comment.
Superintendent Cindy Marten was copied on an email Foster sent to Fulcher in Dec. 2013 – just days after the evaluation letter was submitted on behalf of Foster’s son.
San Diego Unified redacted Foster’s name in various places, but the records are responsive to a request for emails specifically between Foster and Fulcher.
In one email, Foster writes:
“I am writing you and decidedly bypassing SCPA leadership as a result of extreme lack of confidence, distrust and disgust! There have been several issues over the years that fall under student support services at SCPA – BUT THIS IS IT!!!!!”…
“I am horrified and in disbelief that this has happened! I am demanding that the school IMMEDIATELY (TODAY) do the following … ”
Foster then listed her demands: She wanted a copy of the letter SCPA head counselor Kim Abagat submitted (which she wasn’t supposed to have access to). She wanted Abagat’s letter retracted and replaced with one written by another counselor. She wanted to make sure Abagat did not submit additional evaluations on her son’s behalf.
Days later, Abagat’s access to the college application system was restricted, records show.
The emails show a clear violation of school board governance policy, which states: “The board will not give direction to any employee other than the superintendent and any other employee who may report directly to the board.”
Fulcher promised to look into Foster’s concerns, and said he had a plan for how to handle the situation – one Marten apparently helped shape. The plan itself is not included in the email batch we reviewed – some of the emails the district released in response to our records request are redacted in their entirety.
The district will not say how Foster discovered the evaluation to begin with. Neither parents nor school board members are supposed to have access to them.
Megan Blum, another counselor, then submitted a glowing evaluation of the student – making good on Foster’s demands.
In the following months, Abagat was suspended for nine days for not consulting with her colleagues for writing the letter.
“I was punished for telling the truth,” Abagat told me.
As for Lizarraga, she was abruptly removed as principal at the end of the school year. She was not allowed to attend the graduation ceremony.
“I’m 100 percent sure Marne Foster is the reason I’m not at SCPA,” Lizarraga told me in August.
An email from Foster to Fulcher adds weight to that statement.
“EVERYTHING that has transpired is a reflection of her leadership and I have no faith in her efforts of any idea if she was involved to begin with,” Foster wrote.
As superintendent, Marten is ultimately responsible for leadership changes. But she has never said why she removed Lizarraga as principal.
In a statement she sent to VOSD earlier this week, Marten said that Foster complained to her about SCPA, as any school board member can do, but that the complaints were not the basis of her decision: “Any staffing changes, such as those made at SCPA, are based on decisions I myself make following the correct internal processes,” Marten wrote.
Regardless of the reason why she removed Lizarraga, the latest emails show that Marten was aware of Foster’s overreach at the school.
The picture gets uglier for Foster. John Marsh, the father of Foster’s son, came forward this week with explosive information that casts further shadows on the school board president’s actions.
According to Marsh, Foster used the negative evaluation letter to file a complaint with the school district – one he said she wrote, then submitted in his name. The letter asked for $250,000 to cover tuition costs and counseling for the psychological trauma the letter had caused Foster’s son.
“She brought me a blank complaint form and said, ‘Sign it.’ So I did. And I didn’t think twice about it until there was backlash,” Marsh said.
Foster told the San Diego-Union Tribune she was “not a party to the claim” and would not comment on it.
That story also includes a statement, said to be written by Marsh, that reads:
“My son has been severely and unjustly harmed and I will continue to protect him. Marne Foster’s position on the board is temporary and my role as his father is permanent, and I will act in the best interest of my son and NOT the school board or his mother’s political career.”
Marsh says he didn’t write that either; Foster used his email account to write the note to the reporter, he said.
In response to questions about her actions at SCPA, Foster emailed a short response: “This is a personal matter involving a disgruntled ex-spouse, folks should know better and I really don’t want to comment on it.”