Chief executives can’t make every decision their organizations face.
They can’t run every initiative and can’t be at every desk. Their jobs involve inspiring, retaining and expertly hiring people who can carry out major responsibilities. When it doesn’t work out, the job means firing those who struggle.
When Cindy Marten was promoted from her job as principal at an elementary school to chief executive of the second-largest school district in California after no public hearings or a search of any kind, I asked her what experience she had hiring and firing people. Principals at traditional public schools notoriously have little, if any, flexibility on who comes to work for them. Firing educators who are struggling is not really an option at their disposal.
Marten said she only had the experience of persuading educators who were struggling to quit.
But she clearly looked forward to the opportunity to support successful principals and remove or reassign others. The school board took itself out of that process deliberately and gave the superintendent latitude to rearrange principals as she saw fit.
“It’s my stance and my leadership voice that will help shape the type of culture and climate that I want to create across a district and it starts with quality principals in every school,” she told me.
Two years later, she has made changes. The Union-Tribune reported that Marten has removed 90 principals — roughly half of all principals in the district — since she took over.
To believe in Marten’s leadership is to believe in these changes. Sure, someday we might see the Marten Plan — some kind of major reform, innovation or grand bargain with teachers that changes local education as we know it.
But for now, nothing she does has more impact on students than the decisions she is making about who should lead schools in the district.
That is why this controversy about what happened to one of those principals — Mitzi Lizarraga at the School for Creative and Performing Arts — matters.
One of the school board members’ sons went to that school. He got a recommendation to college that his mother, board president Marne Foster, found offensive. She demanded it be replaced with a better one.
Lizarraga says that when she did not allow the same student to go to prom because of a behavioral problem, Marten and her deputies removed her from the school. They took her keys and she was barred from attending the school’s graduation ceremony a few days later. The counselor who wrote the disputed evaluation, Kim Abagat, was suspended without pay.
“I was punished for telling the truth,” Abagat told us.
In coming days, you’re going to read more about this. The district, feeling the heat, will release documents board trustee John Lee Evans said will illustrate why Lizarraga had to be removed. The documents, Evans suggested, will show the decision had nothing to do with Foster’s demands.
“The Board has at all times been clear about the bases for the actions taken and we think it is important for the public also to understand the bases for these actions,” he said in a statement.
Whether any inappropriate meddling contributed to Lizarraga’s removal wasn’t even worth an independent investigation — so clear it was in Evan’s mind. On the other hand, Evans does want an independent investigation into a fundraiser Foster held, and into whether she was the one actually behind a claim seeking $250,000 in compensation for the negative college evaluation.
If he wants to stand loyal to his superintendent, Evans can’t say anything else. He seems disturbed by what Foster did — up to, and stopping at, the point where it implicates Marten. In fact, his defense of Marten included another allegation about Foster: She inappropriately tried to make demands of Marten on another occasion.
But Marten did not comply, Evans reported. It was a bizarre argument that had nothing to do with the case at hand other than to show Foster has a proclivity to demand specific staff actions. It was somehow evidence that Marten didn’t do everything Foster wanted.
They need this to be true.
Because removing a principal for not obeying a school board member would be scandalous. It would also be scandalous if Lizarraga was removed because she didn’t show preferential treatment to that school board member’s son. It would be a petty type of self-dealing — imagine a city councilman fixing parking tickets for his son. The scandal would not just include the councilman and his demands, but whoever executed them.
All parents can imagine fighting for their children at school, and many do. But not all can get access to evaluations that are supposed to be confidential. Not all have a direct line to the superintendent and her top deputies. Not all can demand specific changes and see them play out.
If there’s no better reason for Lizarraga’s dismissal than that the superintendent wanted to please a school board member who felt her son was being mistreated, it would make us wonder how many of the other 90 removed principals were pulled for similarly capricious reasons.
Evans and his colleagues will make the case that Marten was right to let Lizarraga go — and by default, that the Los Angeles school that promptly hired her is making a mistake.
But this is further complicated by what the district actually did with Lizarraga. Marten did not, in fact, let her go. She instead created a special leadership position for Lizarraga at district headquarters.
Thus, if the board makes the case that Marten rightly removed Lizarraga because she was a bad leader, why did she get a glorified, district-wide leadership role?
The district correctly decided to remove its five trustees from having an oversight role over who gets to be a school principal. It rightfully set into place policies that prohibit those trustees from giving direction to any staff member other than the superintendent. Their jobs, again, are to evaluate Marten and provide a diversity of perspective for her while approving her budget and negotiations.
This story threatens to make a mockery of those principles. Worse, unless it’s as clear as Evans said why Lizarraga needed to go, it means that Marten, in her most important role, was willing to make the pursuit of a quality school a lower priority than a school board member’s petty personal complaint.
This is why it’s so important that she have a much better reason. We’ll see.