San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It’s graduation season, and I’ve been recalling lately San Diego Unified’s response several years ago to our series calling into question the district’s highly touted graduation rates. The district took the unprecedented step of creating a special website specifically to push back against our findings. (That site has since been disabled, lol.)

In a section labeled “Is it true some schools push out the low-performers to boost their results?” the district wrote: “No, that would be both morally wrong and financially foolish for any school to push out its students.”

But then, something insane happened. School board president Richard Barrera acknowledged we were right all along – and that they’d known it for years.

“(Marten) identified a few years ago the issue of students who had fallen behind in high school leaving and enrolling in charters like Charter School of San Diego,” Barrera told us after we obtained documents showing the practice was standard. He did so without a hint of shame that the district had spent taxpayer money to create a smear website asserting that this very thing hadn’t happened.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how casually Barrera admitted that the district’s aggressive, vehement pushback was in service of a lie. Because now he’s aggressively, vehemently pushing back once again.

After Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe laid out a series of questions to district leaders about Lincoln High School, Barrera didn’t just suggest Montgomery Steppe was wrong, he all but called her dumb: “We invite the council member and anyone else who cares about Lincoln to educate themselves on the work that is actually happening at the school,” he told the Union-Tribune. That kind of cruel dismissiveness felt a lot like the time he recently told Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that she, too, didn’t understand her own job: “What I would say to Lorena or anyone in the state Legislature is, ‘Your job is to focus on getting schools the money they need, not to come up with strategies not grounded in the work educators already know how to do.’”

Barrera’s colleague, Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, was downright seething in her own response to Montgomery Steppe, and compared the councilwoman’s questions to a racist insult posted on social media by wealthy, White teenagers from a Catholic high school. She called the questions an “attack” and echoed Barrera’s characterization of Montgomery Steppe as uninformed.

Barrera and Whitehurst-Payne’s responses took the district’s history of defensiveness to an absurd extreme and distilled very clearly district leaders’ guiding ethos: Anything but abject praise will be interpreted as an attack, and will be met with force.

What VOSD Learned This Week

CSU San Marcos officials defended their decision not to fire a professor who harassed several students in a letter to the campus, but following continued fallout they announced they’ll reassign him to a new role.


Government agencies employ their own communications professionals, but increasingly they’re spending more and more money on outside PR firms to amplify their messages and project a positive image. One of those entities spending big on PR is San Diego County. Its Board of Supervisors is set to decide on creating a new office to serve immigrant and refugee residents.


More than 20,000 students still don’t have access to broadband internet, and stakeholders worry the urgency to find solutions will wane once students return to school in person full time. Meanwhile, high schoolers are by far the most likely group of students to remain in distance learning.


Chula Vista politicians routinely blow past campaign debt limits. And though they all seem to agree the laws should be changed, they … haven’t. On the podcast this week, we discussed the failed effort to recall Councilwoman Jen Campbell.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Just throwing this out there, because there are a ton of valid feelings and perspectives in the room, but wanted to point out quickly that we have to prevaricate in meetings so we’re not seen as aggressive, but can’t prevaricate too much or we’ll be perceived as weak, and also we can’t spell out our thought process or it’ll be heard as rambling, but we can’t be too terse or we’ll come off as cold, and we need to make sure we’re using considerate language without being condescending, and, um … ” – I, for one, cannot wait for the return of in-person meetings.

Sara Libby

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

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