San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The high school principals of San Diego Unified School District are calling out district leaders for systematically undermining quality education in schools, according to new documents obtained by Voice of San Diego.

The principals’ complaints are wide-ranging. They say district leaders are not providing enough resources for schools to adequately run their special education programs, English-learner programs and math curriculum. Furthermore, some schools do not have enough nurses or mental health staff, they say. And problems within the Human Resources department make it difficult for principals to hire the staff they need in a timely manner.

The principals describe a badly damaged relationship with district leaders.

“Principals feel demoralized due to lack of transparency, communication and support,” reads one memo directed to Superintendent Cindy Marten, dated Sept. 5. “The district’s culture of support, positive relationships, collaboration and staff wellness that is shared by executive leadership is not the culture in which principals works.”

Other cracks in the district’s united front have appeared in recent weeks as well, particularly around the issue of high schools.

Board president Sharon Whitehurst-Payne recently voted against extending Superintendent Cindy Marten’s contract, citing persistent problems at Lincoln High School under Marten’s leadership. “We have not put together a comprehensive, coordinated picture for Lincoln High School because those students are indicative of other kids in the district who are not achieving,” Whitehurst-Payne said at the time.

The group that sent the memos is made up of all the high school principals in the district. (Elementary and middle school principals also have their own groups.) It is not a union, but an informal group that has existed within the district for many years.

The principals’ frustrations seem to have been long-simmering. They formally raised some complaints in a memo dated July 24. They expanded on those concerns in two other memos, dated Sept. 2 and Sept. 5. And they appear to have held a series of meetings with Marten and district chief of staff Staci Monreal, according to the memos.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee declined to comment on the principals’ allegations but directed VOSD instead to two principals who lead the group. Nicole Dewitt and Ernie Remillard, principals of Scripps Ranch and Mission Bay high schools, respectively, provided a joint statement that belies the severe criticisms they raise in the documents.

We “appreciate our leadership’s willingness to discuss matters which support the teaching and learning at all of our sites,” they wrote. “Following the first of our meetings, we are encouraged by the mutual commitment to address issues like appropriate support for English learners.”

The principal group’s memos paint a picture of unaddressed concerns and schools being asked to do more with less.

“Our district systems do not support … the prioritization of effective teaching practice,” one letter reads.

Principals and vice principals do not have enough time to be in classrooms to help coach teachers on improving, the principals say. Instead, they are constantly having to shift more of their focus to clerical tasks and meeting the special education requirements within their schools. Without spending time in the classroom, it is impossible for them to make the “instructional shifts” that are required when some programs aren’t functioning well, they say.

The July memo details how some school sites are losing high-quality teachers, because of what the group calls “ineffective” HR practices. Credentialed teachers who fill in for teachers on long-term leave do not have the job protections of other teachers. Some of them, according to the principals, are “highly effective.” Principals have advocated for the most skilled of these teachers to get probationary contracts, which would make it easier for the principals to keep them. When probationary status is not granted or timelines are delayed by HR, principals say they lose the quality teachers.

The principals also say they are having a difficult time making required changes to their English-learner programs, which support students whose first language is not English. Last year, state officials found San Diego Unified was not providing critical supports to English-learners in core academics and language instruction. Based on the state’s findings, every school will now be required to provide designated, out-of-class language instruction to its English-learners.

But the principals say it will be difficult without “extra funding,” according to one letter. “Principals are expected to implement new mandates … all within unrealistic timelines and via systems that do not support the work.”

The principals saved some of their most severe criticism for HR. One of the memos says the principals brought up concerns about the district’s HR department as much as two years ago. They say the department provides them “incomplete, incorrect or misleading information.” They also say HR constraints make it difficult for them to “run programs that are out of the box.”

Their concerns seem to have gone unanswered.

“When principals complain about HR policies, procedures and practices to executive leadership, they are met with indifference, feigned ignorance, perfunctory concern or disdain,” one memo reads. “HR (and the district as a whole) appears to work at the service of the unions and not in service of school sites.”

The principals also cast doubt on their ability to implement what they see as a promising new math initiatives. The “pilots have the potential to make a long-term impact on math instruction; yet, sites are not provided additional funding to support this shift.”

They also noted reductions in nursing staff have put more burdens on special education programs and the classroom.  “Consistency in the health office is compromised and team morale continues to be impacted,” they wrote.

It is not the first time, principals have raised an alarm about impending problems inside their schools or the first time they have complained of having their voices unheard. After severe budget cuts in 2016, principals reported that administrative capacity inside schools was strapped thin. Principals were moving from fire to fire, and one said that student safety was being negatively impacted.

“Principals wrestle with the high expectations of the district program implementation when they do not feel supported by district departments/personnel and often feel undermined in their efforts,” the principals wrote in the most recent memo.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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