At a meeting of school officials earlier this month, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten related a story about Franklin Elementary, a magnet school near Kensington. There, parents are beginning to believe in the promise of a neighborhood school.

It was an anecdote that highlighted the moral of Vision 2020, the district’s plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools: When parents look past the assumption that their closest schools aren’t good enough for their kids, they’ll be pleasantly surprised by what a school can offer.

Marten said she recently met with 20 families in the neighborhood and persuaded them to give Franklin a try. She was even able win over a real estate agent – someone who Marten said has hurt the school by telling prospective home-buyers that they’ll have to look outside the area for a quality school.

It was an anecdote meant to inspire.

But before Marten was able to tie a bow on the story, trustee Kevin Beiser interrupted and reminded her of the real problem at Franklin: The school has had three different principals since Marten became superintendent. Just when the school finds any sense of stability, the principal leaves and a new one starts from scratch.

“I think that is a bigger concern than the perception in the community of the school,” Beiser told Marten.

It’s a problem that affects a lot more schools than Franklin.

There is no more visible or significant measure of the changes Marten has made during her time as superintendent than the principals she has moved.

As superintendent, matching principals to the right schools – and removing those who aren’t getting the job done – is one power she has to shift the course of the district.

It’s a power she has executed liberally. Since Marten took over in 2013, 87 principals – about half of all those in the district – have retired, transferred to other schools or moved to loosely defined “special assignments.”

The principal churn highlights a central tension her administration has brought on: Marten promised large-scale change when she took over as superintendent. But the possible consequences of so many changes can be unsettling.

And recent high-profile cases have brought Marten under scrutiny, provoking the question of whether all these changes are driven purely by careful strategy, or influenced by sometimes petty political pressures.

Mitzi Lizarraga, a well-regarded principal by most parents’ accounts, was moved suddenly from the School of Creative and Performing Arts in 2014 after years of conflict with school board president Marne Foster. Marten denies that Foster was the real reason behind the move – and took the rare step of releasing 61 pages of documents to justify her decision.

Lizarraga isn’t the only one Marten moved suddenly and with little explanation.

After former principal Esther Omogbehin was hurried out of Lincoln High in 2014, she said Marten bent to pressure from Foster and removed her – offering to create a position for her at the district level and fabricate a story to tell the public about why she moved.

Bruce Ferguson left Green Elementary school amid accusations that he failed to report cases of child sexual abuse. He then got a job in the Central Office.

These cases have gotten the most attention. But according to numbers recently published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the majority of principals moved under less dramatic circumstances: They retired, requested a move, got promoted or were transferred for more routine reasons.

Even with cases that appear straightforward, however, the truth can be more complicated. Marten gave at least one principal the option of retiring or going back to the classroom.

Marten did not respond to questions about the strategy behind the moves.

Trustee Richard Barrera chalks them up to Marten’s clear vision of quality leadership. He said Marten’s experience as a principal at Central Elementary enables her to zero in on administrators’ leadership abilities and know where they’ll best fit in the district.

“Cindy and her team spend more time with principals than any previous administration. If she identifies principals who are struggling in certain areas, she’ll strategize ways to support them. She doesn’t just come in there with an axe and cut them down. But if principals can’t make changes, then she’ll move them,” he said.

It’s a component of Vision 2020, the district’s broad list of reforms the school board wants to accomplish.

The plan’s central goal – to have a quality school in every neighborhood – means that each school needs a leader who can “provide optimal student learning opportunities and outcomes.”

Even if you comprehend the jargon, it’s difficult for the average person to understand what a principal’s job entails.

Principals are the most important – and least discussed – figure in school reform, education reporter Dana Goldstein wrote last year: We often talk about the need to recruit, retain and reward good teachers and help or release bad ones. But that would be the job of principals who are expected to evaluate staff on top of administrative duties.

Principals face a dizzying array of tasks, from planning budgets to retaining and coaching teachers and making sure the school is compliant in its special education services. In San Diego Unified, principals even help plan bond-funded construction projects.

Of course, principals can’t accomplish all those tasks on their own. But they’re ultimately accountable for them.

Even with an overwhelming list of responsibilities, Cheryl Hibbeln, who was principal of Kearny High before she was promoted to a Central Office position, said the most challenging part of the job is dealing with unpredictability.

“That’s the reality. Kids are unpredictable. Life is unpredictable. I would be lucky if I got done in a day half the things I set out to do. Over time, I got better at knowing which things I could let go and which things I couldn’t.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that a report from 2013 found that 75 percent of principals surveyed believed their jobs were “too complex.”

A 2012 RAND report highlighted related trends: New principals – whom the study defined as principals who are new to a school, even if they had prior experience as an administrator – improve over time. But about 20 percent of them will leave schools within two years. The average term for a principal at an urban school is about five years.

That creates a cyclical problem. When principals leave, and a new one enters, academic progress stagnates in the first year.

That puts Marten’s big principal swap in more concerning context: If about half of all principals in the district are new, they’re simultaneously learning a school’s culture while trying to establish stability.

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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