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When John Lee Evans, a San Diego school board member, explained how he knew Superintendent Cindy Marten would not bend to the capricious will of any single school board trustee, he cited a moment when Marten got intense pressure from trustee Marne Foster and didn’t budge.

Marten herself elaborated on the encounter and now says it was a deliberate attempt by Foster to pressure Marten to promote a friend.

Evans and Marten were both responding to revelations that Foster demanded action at a school attended by her son. After Foster’s son received a negative college evaluation, a school counselor was suspended and the school’s popular principal was removed.

Evans and Marten now point to a separate incident as proof that Marten doesn’t simply cave to staffing demands made by Foster.

It happened at a San Diego Unified School Board meeting June 9. During open session, Foster blasted Marten for the way she planned to reorganize Central Office staff.

The changes, Foster argued, would ultimately pull resources away from students of color who are desperately in need of more attention. Foster wanted to see the office of race and human relations have an executive director to lead the work, which it wouldn’t have under Marten’s plan.

“If we say [supporting students of color] is important, and we have the race and human relations department not even have a director – this is a large urban district. The second-largest in the state of California. The eighth-largest in the nation. It’s shameful. It’s really, really shameful,” Foster said.

It was an impassioned speech. Foster was insistent, even after Marten explained the reorganization would actually free up more support for students of color, not less.

In the end, Foster was disappointed. The school board went ahead with the plan she didn’t like.

One point Foster left out of her speech: The changes she pushed would have directly benefited an associate of hers, Agin Shaheed. He would have been the one promoted to executive director.

In an interview with VOSD last week, Marten said the promotion was the real story behind Foster’s salvo.

“It absolutely was,” Marten said.

And it wasn’t just Shaheed. There were a number of specific staff members for whom Foster was trying to secure better positions, Marten said.

When Foster held a fundraiser to benefit her sons, Shaheed gave $20. A document Foster later released listed Shaheed as a “family friend.” (Foster said she released the donor names, and highlighted which were district employees, because she believes “in openness and transparency.”)

It’s problematic for school board members to make specific staffing changes, Marten recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“I think the question of abuse of power is the question that is most relevant,” she said. “You can say what you want, and you say can say why you want it and then you stop. When you begin to tell me how, who, when and where — then you cross the line.”

Evans also pointed to Foster’s behavior at the June 9 board meeting. Though Evans didn’t name Shaheed specifically, he highlighted the incident to say: “It should be clear to everyone that we do not have a superintendent who caves to pressure from board members.”

Later, trustee Mike McQuary attempted to distance himself and other board members from Foster’s actions:

“The board has acted appropriately on the information it had at the time and has been open to receiving new information. As new information is received this board will review, discuss with counsel, examine all options and will take action after discussing the issue in an open public meeting,” he wrote.

But neither McQuary nor his colleagues on the board spoke out when Foster asked that a family friend get a promotion – an action that both Evans and Marten agree was problematic.

In fact, McQuary, along with trustee Richard Barrera, is doubling down on support for Foster by issuing a proclamation this week for her good work.

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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