It’s Monday night, and school board president Mike McQuary is facing questions. He doesn’t have the answers.

Parents, principals and people from the neighborhood crowd into Lincoln High’s library for a cluster meeting – a time for folks to talk about issues shared by the schools that feed into Lincoln High. Parents want to know how the school board plans to fill seat vacated by Marne Foster, their school board representative who last week pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned.

McQuary looks rattled, even before the questions begin. He won’t have answers until the following night, when the school board will decide on a process for appointing the next school board member: The district will accept applications from those who want to serve on the board until Feb 16. A community meeting will be held, applicants will be winnowed to finalists and the final vote on the matter will happen Feb. 23.

At the time he stood in front of parents at Lincoln, though, McQuary didn’t know that. But he should have known, at least, it was unlikely the district would hold a special election. It would be rather absurd to try to hold a special primary election and then a special runoff in the four months before the scheduled primary.

Plus, the district’s legal counsel had already recommended the board appoint someone.

McQuary said none of that. He told parents that all options were on the table. “Everything is possible,” he said.

The following day, McQuary held a press conference to clear up the misunderstanding. It was yet more confusion for a neighborhood that has had plenty of it.

Test scores at schools in southeastern San Diego perennially rank among the lowest in the district. In many of the schools, students are segregated by three barriers: ethnicity, poverty and language – just as they have been since the ‘70s, when the district created its first integration plan.

More than 70 percent of students from the neighborhood leave this cluster of schools by the time they get to high school – a higher attrition rate than anywhere else in the district, according to a 2015 analysis from USD’s Center for Education Policy and Law.

“The goal of the cluster is to keep kids in the cluster,” said Bruce Bivens, the cluster’s new area-superintendent who helped lead the meeting. Seven out of 10 families with kindergarteners remain in the cluster. By the time students get to high school, it’s only three out of 10, Bivens said.

The last time Bivens got together with principals in the Lincoln Cluster, he gave them an assignment: Survey parents at their elementary and middle schools and find out why they send their kids to schools outside the neighborhood. On Monday night, those principals reported their findings: Parents want schools with higher test scores, they said. Schools that offer a personal touch. Schools that are safe and free of gang violence.

District officials like to say that students and schools are more than a test score. But test scores matter to parents.

Foster earned praise for her push to hire more teachers of color, to revamp punitive discipline policies, to make educators more culturally aware. But in terms of academics – and really, any of the issues that make parents leave the cluster – she didn’t move the needle.

“We haven’t had somebody representing our interests for a long time,” Francine Maxwell, a parent who has been involved with Lincoln High for years, said from the back of the room.

Maxwell cried foul in 2014, when Superintendent Cindy Marten removed Lincoln’s former principal Esther Omogbehin. As with the removal of a principal at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, many parents suspected Foster was behind the staff change. As it turned out, there was truth to that assumption.

McQuary listened to Maxwell and nodded. Lacking specifics for how the school board would replace Foster, McQuary stated his commitment to openness and accountability. The district will be transparent, he repeated.

Parents have heard this before. Back in 2013, as the school district was looking to select its next superintendent, the school board moved unilaterally, without consulting the community. In private, board members selected Marten, an elementary school principal who’d turned heads for her ability to transform a high-poverty school. By the time the community even found out Marten was in the running for superintendent, she’d already been chosen.

That was before McQuary was on the school board. But Edith Smith, who has long been involved in schools in the Lincoln Cluster, remembers it well.

“Our trustee board members said we’re going to do all of this vetting and searching and looking in terms of naming a superintendent, and 24 hours later, we had a superintendent, OK?” Smith said. “They lied to the public, they lied to the constituents, they lied to the press and they just felt like life went on. So we have zero trust in that board. So I’m trying to figure out where you’re going to pull this transparency from.”

“Yeah, so now that’s … Those …Those are … Those are things that happened in the past, and I totally get that,” McQuary said.

“But the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” Smith said.

“But now I’m your new president. So I’m your new leadership,” McQuary said.

Former City Council President Tony Young was listening.

“What does transparency mean, in your mind?” Young asked McQuary.

McQuary restated the process: There would be a discussion at the next day’s board meeting, where the school board would decide its next steps, and that discussion would be transparent, because it would happen in public.

“Would you be willing to have board members disclose their communications with other individuals so it will be very transparent on who they talk to and who they engage with?” Young said. (Parents in the room shared a suspicion board members have already made their selection in secret.)

“That would be very transparent,” Young told McQuary. “Because everything that you said so far is basically what you have to do anyway.”

McQuary didn’t say. Soon after, McQuary said he needed to leave.

“Mr. McQuary? Mr. McQuary?”  Several parents asked, still with their hands raised. When it was clear McQuary was out of time, parents thanked him for coming, and he quickly backed out of the room.

We know now how the school board will appoint its next trustee. Whoever is appointed will be able to run in the next election, as the incumbent. Applications are available online, and due by noon on Feb. 16. Community meetings will be held somewhere yet to be determined in Sub-District E. San Diego Unified is featuring application information at the top of the district’s website.

By the start of next month, schools in the Lincoln Cluster will have a new trustee to represent them. If the school board takes seriously the scandal that brought them to this point, you wouldn’t have known it from watching this week’s school board meeting. Not once during the four-hour meeting did school board members address the situation directly, or take ownership of the problems that led to Foster’s ouster.

A day after the school board meeting, trustee John Lee Evans addressed the issue in an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune. In it, he conceded that approving an investigation into Foster and honoring her on the same night was inappropriate. Evans does not, however, explain why neither he nor any other school board member moved to censure or reprimand Foster while they watched her actions unfold.

No matter. Soon enough, it will be business as usual.

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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