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The San Diego Unified school board discusses budget cuts for the 2017-2018 school year. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

A lot of attention has rightfully been paid to San Diego Unified’s lack of transparency – namely, its inability to turn over public records in a timely manner, and the fact that it sometimes withholds public records in violation of the law.

The district is certainly on another level when it comes to dragging its feet on records requests, but it’s not unique in being a public agency that is not all that public.

It is unique, though, in the downright disturbing way it has dealt with one reporter in particular, VOSD’s Mario Koran.

Mario just marked his last week at VOSD – his family is headed back to their native Wisconsin. I could mark the occasion by ticking off a highlight reel of his best stories. Man, what a list it would be.

But something tells me he’d appreciate this more.

Time after time, the district has reacted to important revelations Mario unearthed by trying to attack the messenger instead of meaningfully engaging with his findings. (In other cases, the district bizarrely attacked his reporting even as it took steps to address it – like when it decried his report that the district sent collections agencies after parents who couldn’t afford the school bus, but nevertheless agreed to end the policy.)

I want to highlight two disturbing incidents in particular.

First, there was the time Mario proactively set up a meeting with district officials to discuss how VOSD and the district could better work together and mend fences. It was a meeting whose sole purpose was to facilitate a better working relationship. In that meeting, the district’s communications director joked twice about killing a VOSD reporter. It was a disgusting and disqualifying act that should have gotten him immediately fired. He’s still the district’s communications director.

That same communications director, Andrew Sharp, had a similarly horrifying reaction on another occasion in which Mario reached out to the district in hopes of working together.

In 2016, as Mario was doing work for an outside fellowship with the New America Foundation, he set out to explore ways to engage families that didn’t often interact with schools. He reached out to several agencies to partner on the effort. SDSU and the County Office of Education joined in. San Diego Unified declined.

We later discovered, through a public records request, what had happened behind the scenes. In recommending that the district decline the offer, Sharp compared Mario to a child molester.

“Giving VOSD access to our parents and our kids would be like approving pedophiles to provide after-school care for our kids,” wrote Sharp.

To recap: On two occasions in which Mario reached out to the district in hopes of working together and establishing better professional ties, he was met with a death threat to a colleague and compared to a pedophile. This behavior happened as Sharp was acting as a spokesman for a public school district, paid with taxpayer money to represent an agency that educates children. The district’s hostility toward Mario and other reporters across town — whether through unprofessional behavior like these encounters, or in denying access to records — suggests that these are features, not bugs, of the district’s media strategy.

Mario, like any journalist and any human, is not perfect. He’s gotten things wrong, and he’s even lost his cool a time or two with district officials. But through it all, he’s kept reporting and churning out stories that helped the community better understand how their schools worked.

Mario’s leaving, and we’ll miss his presence and his reporting terribly.

But the district isn’t going anywhere, which is why it’s still important to call out such behavior and insist that an agency whose mission is to equip kids with the tools to be good public citizens do better in its own public dealings.

You can listen to an exit interview with Koran here.

What VOSD Learned This Week

Thanks to a network of cameras that scan the license plates that pass by, local police departments have access to a vast trove of data about people’s movement throughout the region.

State lawmakers passed a modest law in 2015 regulating access to that information, and SDPD doesn’t appear to be following it. The department told Andy Keatts it believed its methods were fine – but also said it would change them.

SDPD also said it didn’t have any control over who it shared its license plate info with. That’s not true. It has broad authority over which agencies can see the data. It doesn’t restrict that info at all, which means Border Patrol and law enforcement groups across the country can see it.

It’s yet another example of how local law enforcement agencies interact with immigration enforcement officials every day, despite policies and laws like SB 54, which seek to limit cooperation.

Lately, local Republican lawmakers have been making bizarre claims about the reach and effect of SB 54 – claims that VOSD’s Scott Lewis effectively dismantled.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who wrote SB 54, was in town this week talking up benefits of the law as he tries to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

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Unpermitted pot dispensaries aren’t supposed to exist, but since they do, they’re still obligated to follow laws requiring them to be accessible to the disabled. One disabled resident has targeted nine illegal pot shops with lawsuits saying they discriminated against him.

Speaking of pot shops, the distinctions between different strains aren’t nearly as pronounced as dispensaries would have you believe – that’s just one “herban legend” that persists in part because of the lack of good scientific research on marijuana.

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A new study of air quality in San Ysidro is giving the community a clearer look at just how closely the Port of Entry is tied to pollution there.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“When the other driver got a good look at her, she recalled, he screamed: ‘A woman driver! A woman driver!’” – One of many incredible lines in the obit for an incredible woman, the first woman cab driver in New York City who went on to become a Broadway actor and director.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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