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The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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By all accounts, Katie Anderson is an engaged, well-informed parent. For about 10 years, she’s served on various parent advisory committees at both the school and district levels.

But in 2014, when her daughter’s principal, Mitzi Lizarraga, didn’t show up for the school’s graduation ceremony, Anderson understood no better than other parents: How could a principal be removed so quickly, and with no explanation?

Anderson wasn’t the only confused parent. Doug Porter of the San Diego Free Press, who also had a child attending the School for Creative and Performing Arts, last year described the ceremony this way:

“Graduation, usually one the high points in the life of a high school student, was fraught with rumors and dissension. Some seniors were talking about boycotting the ceremony. Other seniors wanted to hold up signs. Students were upset, some even in tears. Parents were in disbelief and did not understand what was happening.”

When it finally emerged that Lizarraga would not be returning, it didn’t take long to connect her departure to school board president Marne Foster, who had longstanding beef with Lizarraga. This wasn’t exactly a secret.

This next part didn’t help matters, either. Here’s Porter again, from a more recent story:

“Students at SCPA told me last year that Foster’s son bragged about his mother getting the principal fired during a senior trip to Disneyland. During a subsequent meeting with Superintendent Martin, they refused to identify those who actually heard this statement, fearing retribution in light of the decision to yank Lizarraga on the eve of graduation.”

Yes, this is hearsay. But I’ve heard the same story from several parents and teachers at the school. If it’s a rumor, it is an extremely well-orchestrated one.

It would take Lizarraga more than a year to step forward and publicly tell her side of the story. Then things started moving quickly.

Now, the school board is awaiting the results of an investigation into accusations that Foster thumbed her nose at fundraising rules, and that she was secretly behind a complaint against the school and a request for $250,000.

Last month, Marten dumped 61 pages of documents to justify her decision to move Lizarraga. She and the school board considers that matter closed.

But whatever the results of the investigation, it will likely leave unresolved one, much more practical question.

Question: What process is usually in place for dismissing a principal? – Katie Anderson, San Diego Unified parent

Earlier this week I unpacked the principal churn that’s happened during Marten’s tenure. Eighty-seven principals have been replaced, which has unsettling implications about school stability.

Important to know is that both the district and Donis Coronel, head of the union that represents principals, say that Marten has followed proper procedures on all of these changes.

That highlights the wide latitude Marten has to move principals.

Let’s back up about 15 years to the tenure of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, who the teachers union remembers for his top-down management style.

In 1999, he moved 15 principals and vice principals in a way those administrators said violated their rights to due process. Administrators weren’t yet unionized, but they had a long-standing memorandum of understanding the district was obligated to follow. The administrators sued and eventually won.

Several more years and two superintendents passed before 2009, when administrators unionized and gained collective bargaining rights, among other protections.

Administrators are only on year-to-year contracts. They have fewer protections than tenured teachers. But when they unionized they gained a bargaining unit, more say in their work hours, a clearer grievance process and rules outlining how and when they can be moved.

Which brings us back to Marten’s term. Eighty-seven principals is a lot of movement, but some of that is to be expected. When principals retire – as 27 have since 2013 – principals and vice principals transfer to backfill those spots.

Also typical is the number of principals who ask to transfer from one school to another – 16 principals have done this during Marten’s term 2013, the district says. They might see one school as a better fit, have a desire to work closer to home or want to “trade up” to an easier-to-manage school, research shows.

One big reason why parents are interested in this trend is because of cases like Lizarraga’s, when a principal is moved suddenly and without explanation. (Principals’ contracts say they can’t be moved for vindictive or capricious reasons, but it’s tough to prove motivation.)

In fact, based on policy and procedure, Marten doesn’t have to give principals much of a reason at all, so long as they’re transferred to a position of comparable title and pay. Which is what happened to Lizarraga and 10 others who were moved to “special assignment” positions. These are often loosely defined positions in the Central Office.

If principals will be reassigned to a position where they could lose pay or change titles, the process has to be more defined, says Coronel. The district has until March 15 to notify principals they may move.

The process is more robust, expensive and time-consuming if the district intends to fire a principal.

In those cases, the district has to provide a list of “charges” against a principal that detail what he or she has done wrong. The principal must be given a chance to respond. He or she can choose to lawyer up and fight termination, which draws out the process.

Coronel says the entire process can take up to a year and cost each side upwards of $100,000.

It makes sense, then, why Marten would move a controversial principal into a “special assignment” rather than moving to terminate him or her, like what happened to Bruce Ferguson, a principal who left Green Elementary last May amid accusations that he failed to report sexual abuse.

Such moves are quicker and easier because they sidestep a lot of red tape.

This is all helpful context for understanding why and how principals move.

But it doesn’t explain why Lizarraga was barred from attending her school’s graduation ceremony. That’s the part that really confused Katie Anderson.

“I can’t imagine that, short of having a firearm on campus, being inebriated on campus or being accused of molesting a student, keys are taken from a principal two days before commencement as part of the process of relieving a principal of their duties,” Anderson said.

That point is still a little hazy. Marten addressed it – vaguely – in an open memo that prefaced the 61-page document dump she said justified her decision to move Lizarraga.

Marten wrote that, during a meeting, “Lizarraga shared information which led to her taking an immediate personal leave to attend to matters” and couldn’t return in time for the ceremony.

Lizarraga told me a more detailed version: She’d filed a workers’ compensation claim for stress-induced health concerns, and mentioned it in a meeting with district officials.

They told her it would be a liability for her to return to school until the claim was cleared up – so she said she withdrew it, then got cleared by a medical professional who said she was OK to work. But for whatever reason, district officials still wouldn’t let her return to school, she said.

Ed Reads of the Week

• How school shootings catch on (The New Yorker)

Malcolm Gladwell has taken a lot of guff over the years from people who say he cherry-picks research finding to fit his thesis. But his arguments are nothing if not thought-provoking.

In this piece, Gladwell examines the rise of school shootings, tracing them from the days – not long ago – when they were few and far between. Then, Columbine happened: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold laid down a kind of cultural script for young shooters to follow.

Gladwell describes a grotesque pattern. Shooters are self-referential, often nodding to past killers in recorded statements. They fall into a warped riot mentality in which they’ve become desensitized to the possible consequences of their actions.

• A tale of two Manhattan schools (Chalkbeat)

The picture of New York I have in my mind is a more diverse and cosmopolitan city than anywhere in the world. On this overcrowded island, there’s simply no space for xenophobia or racism.

Of course, that’s not true. Parents there are troubled by the same issues that affect parents in St. Louis, Mo., or Madison, Wis., or San Diego. We all agree diversity and integration are good, but when it comes to our families, well: “You don’t gamble with your kids’ lives like that,” she said.

• Integration doesn’t hurt white kids’ test scores (CityLab)

In case you were wondering.

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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