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Emails and testimony VOSD published in recent weeks inflamed a suspicion that San Diego Unified School Board president Marne Foster wanted a principal removed because of treatment her son had received.
The principal was removed.
In response to public pressure and a request from the school board to clear it up, Marten posted an open memo and released 61 pages of documents that make the case Mitzi Lizarraga, the former principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, or SCPA, was bad at her job and deserved to be removed.
Despite the litany of concerns about her leadership qualities outlined in the report, Marten did not fire Lizarraga – she promoted her. That contradictory messaging – Lizarraga was ineffective yet the district wanted to take advantage of her talents – doesn’t so much put questions about Lizarraga’s removal to rest as it does introduce new ones.
Tuesday, the district decided to hire an outside contractor to probe a fundraiser Foster had and a request for compensation she might have had a role in. But the inquiry will not explore what happened at the school.
Here are some of the major highlights of the school district’s release and some questions that remain unanswered.
Did Marne Foster Pressure Marten to Reassign Mitzi Lizarraga?
“Yes,” Marten says it plainly in a long statement that prefaces the report. “I did receive pressure.”
Marten has said before that Foster crossed the line when she pressured her to make specific staffing changes. But this is the first time Marten has confirmed that it extended to removing Lizarraga as principal.
Marten remains firm, though, that while Foster has exerted pressure, she has never caved to those demands. Removing Lizarraga as principal was based on what was best for the school, Marten wrote.
She said she gets pressure all the time.
“Pressure to do things that others want me to do comes with being a Superintendent. However, I will say clearly and succinctly, the pressure I received from a board member did not cause the reassignment of Ms. Lizarraga,” Marten wrote.
So what were Marten’s reasons for removing Lizarraga?
The bulk of the report describes SCPA as a school with longstanding problems.
They predate Marten’s tenure as superintendent. Included in the report are a number of emails from former Superintendent Bill Kowba that show he was concerned about how discipline was doled out and whether students were appropriately supervised.
“Superintendent Kowba provided me with a lengthy list of concerns about SCPA that merited immediate attention including allegations of bullying, racially disproportionate discipline practices, inadequate staff and student supervision, and documented employee climate concerns going back several years,” Marten wrote.
Does she back that up?
Not in the documents released.
For example, Marten stresses this “disproportionate discipline practices” SCPA suspension data shows black students were punished more often than white students. But racial disparities are a district-wide concern. Information in the report does not compare SCPA to other schools or show whether it is an outlier. And in 2013-2014, the last year Lizarraga was a principal, the school’s suspension rate was well below the district average.
A number of concerning allegations are mentioned in emails between Kowba and other district staff members, including reports that Lizarraga and other administrators harassed employees. But if specific and serious incidents were ever investigated, those reports were not included in the released information.
The report also points to a school climate survey in which a number of staff members complained about school leaders. But Marten would not say how that compares to school climate surveys at other schools.
“I’m not talking about that right now,” Marten said in an interview.
Out of the allegations against Lizarraga, which factored most heavily into Marten’s decision to remove her?
None of them. Or all of them. Depending on how you look at it.
Marten said that she made the decision based on the “totality of evidence” – not any single claim or incident.
When pressed, Marten said she didn’t make the decision based on Lizarraga’s problems, at all. She made it because Lizarraga was a talented leader when it came to the arts. For that, she would be a great fit for a leadership position Marten was looking to fill.
“The decision to reassign is specifically a decision that’s around the best fit for a person’s leadership, not around disciplinary action. There was not disciplinary action involved in that,” Marten said.
This contradicts the thrust of the report, which details Lizarraga’s supposed leadership failings. Lizarraga did not return a call for comment.
Did we learn why the counselor was punished?
Marten detailed an angry call she received from Foster, the school board member, after her son received a college recommendation she found objectionable. She said she quickly ended the call and referred Foster to more appropriate channels.
Kim Abagat, the head counselor at the school, wrote the college evaluation for Foster’s son. She was suspended for nine days, without pay. The evaluation was redone by another counselor, Megan Blum.
“I was punished for telling the truth,” she told VOSD.
The documents released Tuesday reveal that an investigator determined that Abagat did not do enough to consult with her colleagues before she wrote the evaluation. Abagat tried to get advice from Lizarraga, the investigator acknowledged, but “she did not demand a meeting” with her.
He said that she left other parts of the evaluation blank, and that overall, her evaluation was not up to the standards of professional counselors.
The investigator made another finding, too: “There existed, and continues to exist, a dysfunctional; distrustful; and unprofessional relationship between Marne Foster and Ms. Lizarraga.”
Marten, in her statement, criticized Abagat and Lizarraga multiple times for sharing private information with reporters:
“Once again, the information provided here includes detail not typically provided to the public or media questioning why certain actions were taken. It is unfortunate that Ms. Lizarraga and Ms. Abagat felt it was necessary to provide confidential information and documents to members of the media and some members of the public, against professional practice and involving private information pertaining to students.”
But the disclosure of the confidential evaluation to Foster was not mentioned.
Marten would not say if Blum, the counselor who showed Foster the student information that set this whole thing off, was ever punished. Current and former staff members say that Blum only received a letter of reprimand.
The documents released also include an email from Blum to the district complaining about Lizarraga and tallying up staff members and students who would be willing to talk about her bad leadership.
We did learn Tuesday that Abagat and Lizarraga have retained the high-profile attorney Dan Gilleon to press their case that they were punished.
“It was really vindictive … they believe it was Marne Foster using her influence to have district administrators punish them,” Gilleon told 10News.
So how did Foster’s son factor into Lizarraga’s departure?
This is the most important piece missing from the report. No specific information about students are included in the report.
But Marten recently confirmed to VOSD that an incident with Foster’s son was at least a factor in the culminating events that led to Lizarraga’s removal.
“It would be wrong to say that’s not part of the story, but that’s not the whole story,” Marten said.
In the interview, Marten would not tell the rest of that particular story.