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Lincoln High School has been struggling since the moment it was rebuilt in 2007.

The last leader who tried to revamp the school, by attracting high-performing teachers and pushing out struggling ones, was Esther Omogbehin. But her work provoked complaints from teachers and their union representatives.

By the 2013-2014 school year, tensions had risen to the point where the district embedded a staff member from its race and human relations office on Lincoln’s campus.

One day in April, that staff member requested a meeting with Omogbehin. As the two talked about Lincoln’s challenges, a member of the school board, Marne Foster, stepped into the office, unannounced.

She said she was checking in.

Foster sat down and started taking notes. At one point Foster asked Omogbehin what her ideal job would be. Omogbehin says she thought the question was hypothetical. She told Foster she’d like to spend her time helping kids at-risk of dropping out.

Here’s what she says Foster did next:

“(Foster) finishes taking notes,” Omogbehin said. “Then she pops up and says, ‘OK, I’m gonna go call Cindy. Cindy is going to give you a call and we’re going to make it happen.’”

Cindy is Cindy Marten, the district superintendent.

Within days, Foster got what she wanted. Omogbehin was out. A new, poorly defined job was created for Omogbehin at the district level. But instead of taking it, she left for a job in Houston.

Last week, San Diego school board members recognized Foster with a commendation and specifically a shoutout for her work at Lincoln High School.

“President Foster played a key role in transforming Lincoln High School into a Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math (STEAM) school,” the proclamation read.

Foster, though, also played a key role in removing the principal of Lincoln in 2014, Omogbehin.

School board members are encouraged to have contact with the schools they represent. But a firewall is supposed to separate trustees from the decisions impacting day-to-day operations in schools.

The change at Lincoln is another instance in which that firewall wasn’t so clear.

Omogbehin, who left Lincoln after several years of controversy, says Foster and Marten made a plan to usher her out: Marten created a new position for Omogbehin, then encouraged her to fabricate a story to explain her departure.

When Omogbehin didn’t go along with the plan, she says Marten gave her an ultimatum.

A Mixed Legacy

By all outward appearances, Lincoln by 2014 needed resuscitation. For years, its test scores ranked among the district’s lowest. Enrollment dwindled as neighborhood kids opted for charters or schools across town.

Omogbehin was a polarizing character. That perception dogged her since she took over the school in 2012.

Lincoln teachers said she was disrespectful and unwilling to collaborate. Danny Blas, who taught at Lincoln during Omogbehin’s term, believes he was transferred out of the school in retaliation for filing a grievance against the principal.

“I think the vast majority of teachers and students felt there was negative pressure across the school, and attribute that pressure to her,” said Blas, who now teaches at Kearny High.

Omogbehin says she was just moving with the necessary urgency to reform the school. She points to a transcript audit she once ordered. After she discovered only 50 would-be seniors out of 350 were on track to graduate, she retooled their class schedules and got 325 students out the door.

She says changes were under way: Test scores, while still low, had jumped significantly in math – one area, she says, where she was able to recruit talented teachers to revitalize the department.

That describes her broader reform efforts: Push out struggling teachers and replace them with better ones. Omogbehin says that Marten privately supported this effort, and counseled her to document problems with teachers so she had paper trails to support their removal.

In fact, it’s the very approach Marten says she took as a principal at Central Elementary School: While firing struggling teachers may be hard, you can encourage them to seek other careers. Marten touts it as an important option for school site leaders.

“When a system is bad and you start fixing it, people are either going to change or they’re going to leave,” Omogbehin said. “If they don’t want to leave and that change keeps approaching them, then they get fearful and they begin to stir up all kinds of stuff.”

Teacher protests spilled from campus into board meetings, and teachers clad in matching red union T-shirts called for her removal. Omogbehin says the union found an ally in Foster.

“Marne was elected by the union. They funded her campaign, and they wanted certain things. She has to do the union’s bidding,” Omogbehin said.

What Happened Behind Closed Doors

After the strange meeting, Omogbehin says she texted Foster to make clear she didn’t want to leave the school. But the message was out and the wheels were in motion. Community members got wind of the meeting and showed up at the school. NBC ran the story.

Later that night, Marten drove to Lincoln to discuss a position change – exactly the one Foster had just suggested. Omogbehin said she reiterated she did not want to leave, but Marten encouraged her to think of it as a promotion.

She said Marten suggested a way to spin the story as a way to save face with community members.

“(Marten said) You can message it however you want to message it. Or I can message it however you want me to message it. I’ll say what you want me to say. We can say you had a family incident,” Omogbehin recalled.

Marten gave her a few days to think about the offer. The following week, Omogbehin was called to the district’s Central Office to make a final decision.

She said she pressed Marten once more to explain why the change was needed.

“She just kept shrugging,” Omogbehin said. “(She said) Well, I just have a right to say I don’t believe you can lead Lincoln anymore.”

Omogbehin says in this moment, it became clear: Marten and Foster wanted her out. They just wanted to let Omogbehin think it was her idea.

“Here’s the thing,” Omogbehin said, “if you’re removing me, and you can’t even be honest with the community about your reasons, and then you offer me a job at the Ed Center, what are the odds I won’t be kicked out of there too?”

“It was at that point I made up my mind. Instead of taking my chances with them, I’ll go look for something somewhere else,” she said.

Omogbehin flew to Houston for an interview, and was quickly hired. She’d serve as an area superintendent under Terry Grier, the former head of San Diego Unified whose reforms also met resistance.

Omogbehin said she’s happy and thriving in Houston, and sees God’s hand in the way things played out.

Unanswered Questions

Donis Coronel, president of the union that represents San Diego Unified principals, said superintendents don’t need to say much when they move principals to another position – as long as it’s a lateral move. If a principal is demoted, reasons have to be more detailed.

Coronel did not comment on Omogbehin’s story specifically, but said “I’ve lost confidence in your leadership,” or “We’re taking the school in a different direction,” is all the justification a superintendent needs to give.

Superintendents also have latitude to create a position specifically for a principal, Coronel said. Often, these are called “special assignments.” The positions don’t have to be posted publicly, and the district does not have to interview other candidates, she said.

Since 2013, the year Marten became superintendent, 11 principals have been put on special assignment. Omogbehin would have made a dozen.

The district casts these roles as a way to retain principals with special skills. But the special assignment roster also includes principals who have left schools under controversy.

Included is Dana Shelburne, who was moved to a special assignment after an audit of La Jolla High found hundreds of thousands of dollars weren’t backed up by receipts. More recently, San Diego Union-Tribune told the story of Bruce Ferguson, who left Green Elementary school last year amid accusations that he didn’t report child molestation. Ferguson also landed on special assignment.

Placing principals on special assignment can be a way for the district to sidestep the red tape required to terminate an employee. It can also be a way for district officials to address a problem without admitting any mistakes.

But even if Marten was acting within her authority by creating a role for Omogbehin, it doesn’t explain Foster’s role in the ordeal. Board members are not supposed to be involved staffing decisions.

Neither Foster nor Marten responded to points in Omogbehin’s version of events. But district spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer sent a statement that reads in part:

“The Superintendent has made, and will continue to make, the necessary and critical decisions about all of our schools, including Lincoln High School, with the best interests of students as her paramount concern.”

Kroemer did not contest Omogbehin’s versions of events, but said even if Foster was involved, it would not have influenced Marten’s offer. The superintendent gets input from many places, but does not make staffing decisions based on a board member’s demands.

If this response sounds familiar, it is because Marten used the same one in regard to questions about Foster’s role in removing another principal, Mitzi Lizarraga.

In that case, Marten admitted Foster pressured her to remove Lizarraga, but said that pressure is not the reason she made the decision.

The problem here, if Omogbehin’s version is accurate, is there exists a much cleaner line between Foster and a principal’s removal: Foster relayed a plan to Marten. Marten executed it in a matter of days.

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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