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In September, responding to public backlash that she caved to pressure and removed a principal at school board member Marne Foster’s request, Superintendent Cindy Marten took the rare step of releasing 61 pages of emails and personnel documents to justify her decision.
Marten intended the trove of emails and employee records to show problems at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, under the leadership of Principal Mitzi Lizarraga, were serious and longstanding.
In a preface to the documents, Marten recognized the “gifts and talents (Lizarraga) has in the area of performing arts.” But the thrust of the document painted a picture of a principal who was inept and ineffective. They included alarming allegations of on-campus “choking games,” racial disparities in school discipline and complaints from more than 20 staff members about the school’s culture.
If Marten was trying to put distance between the actions she took and the demands of an overzealous board member, it was fairly effective. Since then, public attention has focused on Foster alone.
But new information suggests the 61-page document dump was carefully curated and incomplete.
The records didn’t mention, for instance, that Foster made demands of Lizarraga as far back as 2011. After a vice principal suspended her son from school, Foster wanted Lizarraga to overturn the suspension, and threatened to try the “case in the media” if her demand wasn’t met.
Neither did Marten mention this same vice principal was removed from SCPA in 2013 under circumstances very similar to Lizarraga’s.
And, despite the fact the released documents cast doubt on Lizarraga’s leadership abilities, Marten left out the fact that Lizarraga’s performance evaluation from 2013 was glowing. In what Lizarraga says was the last evaluation she received, not a single issue of concern or area in need of improvement was mentioned.
The evaluation doesn’t necessarily negate all other concerns mentioned in the report. But it certainly muddies the narrative Marten shaped.
The superintendent was either aware of the information before she released 61 pages of documents (but deliberately withheld it), or she wasn’t aware, possibly because she didn’t vet the information before she released it. Each would be problematic.
Marten will not comment as to which it is. She did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. In response to a list of questions, district spokeswoman Linda Zintz sent the following statement on Marten’s behalf:
“The district does not comment on student discipline matters or personnel actions. Information relevant to the reassignment of Mitzi Lizarraga has already been provided and we have no further comment on that issue.”
A Personal Connection to the Suspension Issue
During a school board meeting in July 2014, Foster shared a story about an unnamed black student who came to school wearing a doo-rag and was promptly suspended by an administrator.
She called the story a “classic” example of why San Diego Unified needed to revamp its discipline policies so they were less punitive.
What Foster didn’t mention was that the boy in the story was her son.
Lizarraga remembers the doo-rag story well. That happened in 2011, she said, when SCPA’s then vice principal suspended one of Foster’s sons for violating the school’s dress code.
Afterward, Lizarraga recalls, the two had a tense exchange: “(Foster) came to put pressure on me to expunge her son’s disciplinary records. And she played that race card. I got really indignant and I said, ‘You are looking at the black woman who stands on the shoulders of everyone who has come before her. And I know that as black men and women we take responsibilities for our actions.’”
Lizarraga said this email came next. In it, Foster wrote: “Should you choose for whatever reason not to reverse his suspension I will try this case in the media, uniform compliance, and through other organizations to which I serve. I will NOT let this go!”
Foster had not yet been elected to the school board at the time she sent the email. And, as Marten has argued elsewhere, she could also say Foster was within her rights as a parent to make demands upon the school.
It’s perhaps understandable that this incident wouldn’t be mentioned in the documents Marten released in September. But it’s certainly a relevant piece of context for understanding what has happened at SCPA in the past few years.
Specifically, that the vice principal, whose name VOSD has agreed to withhold, was removed from SCPA at the end of the 2012-2013 school year – the year before Lizarraga was reassigned. And his story parallels Lizarraga’s.
Discipline records obtained by Voice of San Diego show the vice principal suspended Foster’s other son for having and using marijuana in March 2013. In the weeks following the suspension, Shirley Wilson, then the area superintendent, began investigating suspension rates at SCPA, according to staff emails.
Then, in June 2013, the vice principal was called into a meeting with district officials.
He brought his union rep, Ruth Peshkoff. District officials informed him he was getting demoted and moved into the classroom to be a teacher, Peshkoff said. They gave no reason, Peshkoff recalls, other than saying that then-Superintendent Bill Kowba had lost confidence in his leadership. Lizarraga, as his direct supervisor, did not the support the demotion.
“I then indicated we felt the demotion was politically motivated, and if they insisted in pursuing the illegal demotion we’d take it court bring in any witnesses to prove it was political,” Peshkoff said.
Officials broke from the meeting, Peshkoff said, and when they returned, they’d changed their minds: The employee could retain his status as vice principal, but he’d have to move to another school.
Neither Marten nor Kowba would comment on the reason for the vice principal’s removal, Lizarraga said she disagreed with his reassignment, and told Foster so one day in the school’s parking lot.
Lizarraga remembers Foster saying: “Well he should be happy he even has a job. He shouldn’t even be around kids. He’s a racist.”
“I knew then that Marne Foster was behind this,” Lizarraga said. “And I knew that she was going to come after me next.”
Foster did not respond to a request for comment.
At the end of the following year, Marten removed Lizarraga from SCPA and reassigned her to a districtwide management position. Her reason: She had lost confidence in Lizarraga’s ability to effectively lead as a principal.
An Incomplete Story
In September 2015, public criticism of Foster had reached a fever pitch. By then, Lizarraga had publicly shared her story about her departure from SCPA: Foster, angry about the way Lizarraga dealt with her son, pushed Marten to remove her as principal; Marten allowed it to happen.
Kim Abagat, a counselor at SCPA, came forward and said she was suspended for nine days for writing an honest but unflattering college recommendation letter for one of Foster’s sons. Foster also hosted a private fundraiser to benefit her sons.
John Marsh, the father of Foster’s son, told VOSD that Foster pressured him to sign his name on a claim form which sought $250,000 from the district over the negative college recommendation. He said Foster filled out the rest of the form, submitted it in his name and then claimed she had nothing to do with it.
Facing pressure, the school board acted. On Sept. 29, when school board members emerged from a three-hour, closed-session meeting, trustee John Lee Evans read a statement, which said, in part:
“The single most important goal of the Board is that all the facts be placed before the public. Therefore, the Board has authorized the Superintendent to release all pertinent information regarding what has transpired at SCPA over the past two to three years.”
“Pertinent” information was left to the discretion of Marten and the district’s general counsel, Andra Donovan, trustee Richard Barrera said.
Days after Evans’ statement, Marten released a flood of documents that contained personal emails, personnel information, suspension data, an SCPA staff survey and an investigative report about the college recommendation letter Abagat wrote.
But that information told an incomplete story.
Suspension rates at SCPA indeed appeared racially disproportionate. But SCPA’s data was not compared with data from other schools. Nor was it mentioned that racial disparities in discipline is an issue at schools districtwide, as they have been for decades. In fact, in 2013-2014, the last year Lizarraga was at SCPA, the school’s suspension rate was well below the district average.
Staff complaints, included in the documents, gave the appearance the school had various, wide-ranging issues. Yet Lizarraga said she was actually the one who asked staff to complete the survey in an attempt to be a responsive leader. She didn’t expect the results would one day be used against her.
The allegation about the “choking game” on campus, it turns out, had to do with a fairly common game students play in which they take turns making each other lose consciousness. It’s not new or unique to San Diego. One national reporter said, “it’s been around for as long as kids have done dumb things.”
That’s not to say the game isn’t potentially dangerous, but if the district ever investigated the alarming allegation, those reports were not included in the 61 pages. Marten declined to discuss further.
On Dec. 10, the district attorney’s office served San Diego Unified with a warrant for information regarding Foster.
Kowba, the superintendent in charge when the vice principal was removed from SCPA, said, “I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment while a high-level investigation is under way.”
While the DA has not released information on the scope of its investigation into Foster, the office almost certainly won’t be digging into what happened at SCPA. Neither will the district. After Marten released the 61 pages of documents, district officials made clear that it considers the matter closed.