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Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Lincoln High School has been at the center of debates about educational quality within San Diego Unified School District for years. In 2013, former superintendent Cindy Marten said, “When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.”

Community members have consistently leveled the criticism that district leadership is not providing Lincoln the level of support it needs to succeed.

Those concerns extended to the heights of the U.S. Senate recently when Sen. Lisa Murkowski questioned Marten about the persistent and stark achievement gap at Lincoln, during Marten’s confirmation hearing to become deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who represents a southeastern portion of the city where Lincoln is located, raised some of those same concerns in a letter to the San Diego Unified Board of Education. She called out leaders for failing to have the cultural understanding to effectively lead the school, which is made up of nearly all students of color.

She also demanded answers on why the school hasn’t been able to maintain stable leadership for more than a decade and its academic trajectory.

Enter Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who represents southeastern San Diego on the Board of Education. Whitehurst-Payne first called Montgomery Steppe’s letter disingenuous. But then days later, amped up her rhetoric with a contemptuous letter accusing Montgomery Steppe of disrespecting and even abusing Lincoln.

“I don’t need folks who don’t understand the nature of this job trying to tear down one of my schools,” Whitehurst-Payne told the Union-Tribune.

It’s unclear why Whitehurst-Payne has had such a change of heart about the direction of Lincoln.

In July 2019, Whitehurst-Payne rebuked Marten over her handling of Lincoln, saying not enough had been done for the school. Around the same time, the district hired a new principal, Stephanie Brown, to help lead the school. Eight months later, the pandemic happened.

But during the last two years, Whitehurst-Payne has become a convert. She told Montgomery Steppe that she clearly doesn’t understand what’s happening inside the school and, in fact, that it is headed in an amazing direction.

Both Montgomery Steppe’s letter to the board, and Whitehurst-Payne’s response make multiple claims about the state of what is most likely San Diego Unified’s most closely watched schools. To help make sense of it all, we’ve provided explanations to some of the most heated portions of each letter.

First up, several sections from Montgomery Steppe’s original letter:

Since it reopened in 2007 with a gleaming, $129 million new campus, Lincoln High has been plagued by leadership turmoil – far more than any other San Diego Unified high school.

The fact that the principal position has become a revolving door, preventing any one leader from gaining traction and exerting a consistent presence at the school. In one instance, the search for a new principal dragged on for a year. The long process and the disruption it created provoked a student walkout in 2017.

Families at Lincoln and other schools in southeastern San Diego faced another kind of leadership shakeup in 2016. The school board member who preceded Whitehurst-Payne, Marne Foster, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and resigned her position following a series of revelations by Voice of San Diego about ways she abused her authority. The process of replacing Foster on the school board, like the many principal vacancies, led to frustration and confusion among the Lincoln community.

That lack of consistent leadership can be seen in the many different visions various leaders have tried to implement, with mixed results at best. In addition to the massive rebuild of the campus, efforts to rebrand the school have included the creation of a Middle College – a program that allowed students to take community college courses while still in high school. That effort failed in a devastating way for students, as we reported in 2016: “District officials told concerned parents the program had been cut down to a single course because not enough students signed up for the courses. They didn’t tell families about the changes until after some students had arrived for their first classes only to find empty classrooms and no instructors.”

As for that one remaining course, it was so plagued with problems that the district had to broker a special deal allowing kids to withdraw from the course instead of taking an F that would haunt their transcripts.

To better understand the school’s political and cultural significance that Montgomery Steppe references, check out this extensive history of the school we published on the 10th anniversary of its reopening.

Montgomery Steppe is referring to the news, broken by VOSD, that one of Lincoln’s top leaders, Jennifer Roberson, was abruptly reassigned.

Stephanie Brown is Lincoln’s current principal, but lesser known was that Roberson was the school’s “director,” a position few schools in the district have.

Several employees of the school told us that Roberson played a highly visible role running the school day to day and that she was actually tasked with running grades 10-12. The district disputes this. Spokeswoman Maureen Magee said in March that Brown is responsible for all grades at the school. Brown joined the school following yet another abrupt leadership shakeup.

Roberson’s exit marks the sixth leadership change at Lincoln in the past 14 years – an astonishing rate of turnover unseen at other schools.

These questions refer to findings from a Voice of San Diego story published in March.

Roosevelt Blackmon, a Lincoln Heights community member, had been making claims for months that leaders at Lincoln misspent several hundred thousand dollars of the school’s discretionary funding. Blackmon was a previous member of Lincoln’s School Site Council, which has legal authority to dictate how some of the discretionary funds are spent.

District officials said they were investigating Blackmon’s claims, but never publicly stated whether his claims were true.

Meanwhile, we discovered an email in which district officials admitted some funds were not spent as the School Site Council directed. The council voted for $220,000 to be spent on math books and tutoring, but the money was never spent.

San Diego Unified officials challenged some of VOSD’s findings. District officials had previously paid an outside law firm to review Blackmon’s claims. The review found “the allegations were not credible and that no funds were misspent,” a district spokeswoman wrote in a letter to the editor.

We’ll dig more into this claim in Whitehurst-Payne’s letter.

Vision 2020 actually predates Marten, and was the brainchild of former school board trustee John Lee Evans, who in 2009 rolled out a plan to guide the district for the following decade, with the overarching goal of creating quality schools in every neighborhood by 2020.

That’s an especially meaningful goal for southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, where many parents have turned to charter schools or other schools across the district. For decades, there was an perception that ambitious students and parents needed to go to schools in other neighborhoods and many did. This was the district’s deliberate effort to upend that perception.

Notably, district officials never created a specific set of metrics by which to judge the quality of each school.

When we assessed the success of Vision 2020 in January of that year, we found that there have been triumphs, including that the percentage of Black and Latino students who graduate with a higher GPA has gone up substantially.

Richard Barrera, the president of the school board, slammed Montgomery Steppe’s questions to the Union-Tribune, but he acknowledged to us in January 2020 that several clusters of schools haven’t come as far as he’d hoped under Vision 2020.

Nowhere are the limitations of Vision 2020 more visible than in southeastern San Diego, including at Lincoln.

Seven of the 12 schools in San Diego Unified that made the state’s list of worst-performing schools are located in District E, the subdistrict represented by Whitehurst-Payne that includes Lincoln.

“These schools are not considered among the state’s worst-performing simply because of test scores,” we reported in 2020. “They ranked among the worst or next-to-worst in multiple categories that also measure school climate, such as suspension rates and how often students are absent from school.”


Now let’s unpack sections from Whitehurst-Payne’s response:

In her opening paragraph, Whitehurst-Payne compares Montgomery Steppe’s letter to a recent event in which prep school football players made shirts that called Lincoln players convicts.

Montgomery Steppe’s letter makes no derogatory references to Lincoln students. Rather, it calls out district leadership for failing to provide the school what it needs to succeed.

San Diego Unified leaders do “not understand the historical, political, cultural and socio-economic context of the school to lead the school and community effectively,” Montgomery Steppe wrote. She went on to ask that district leaders answer 12 questions about the current state of education and leadership quality at Lincoln.

Over the years, San Diego Unified leaders have regularly accused different community members and organizations, including VOSD, of bashing Lincoln when persistent problems at the school are pointed out. It appears Whitehurst-Payne is viewing Montgomery Steppe’s letter in that same light.

It’s easy to get lost in the noise when trying to follow exactly what went down with Lincoln’s School Site Council.

VOSD reported that $220,000 in spending approved by the council “was not properly allocated.” The story never claimed that money destined for Lincoln went to a different school or that someone pocketed the money for financial gain, as Whitehurst-Payne highlights in her letter.

In that sense, she’s engaging with a strawman argument.

Here’s what a district official wrote about the spending a few months after it happened: “Last year’s SSC approved 2 large budget items BUT funds were never allocated for these expenses (sic.)”

The law firm’s review added further nuance. It claimed the council approved funds “when there was no identified monies, and moreover, no available/unencumbered monies to spend.”

Meeting minutes from the night of the School Site Council meeting show that Lincoln’s principal informed parents and community members on the council that the funds were indeed available for use.

This claim is true, though it doesn’t specifically address Montgomery Steppe’s concerns about Lincoln.

In 2016, San Diego Unified instituted more rigorous requirements for students to graduate from high school. Raising the standards – and thus expectations – seems to have propelled students to perform much better. The percentage of Black and Latino students who graduated while doing the tougher course load exponentially increased. Undoubtedly, that is one way to measure the achievement gap. And in that way, it narrowed.

But drilling down on Lincoln when it comes to state English and math scores tells a different story. In 2015, 29 percent of students were proficient in language arts and 14 percent were proficient in math. By 2019, those numbers had changed little. In language arts, 36 percent were proficient or better. And in math, 9 percent were proficient, according to state testing data.

This portion of Whitehurst-Payne’s letter suggests Brown is responsible for the gains being referred to. But the gains occurred between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. Brown only became principal after the 2018-19 school year was over. During Brown’s year as principal, scores actually dropped by one point.

A major part of Montgomery Steppe’s criticism of Whitehurst-Payne and her Board of Education colleagues is that they can’t provide stable leadership at Lincoln.

Ever since the previous director of the school was reassigned, Lincoln has been considering hiring a co-principal to help Brown run the school. That process isn’t finished yet and it’s unclear if a hire will ever go through.

It’s also unclear whether Montgomery Steppe is saying she wants a new principal hired, or whether she simply wants community input on the hiring of the co-principal.

Before Brown was hired at Lincoln, her only previous principal role had been at Montgomery Middle School. Roberson had more administrative experience and had served as the principal of Clairemont High.

In another part of her letter, Whitehurst-Payne makes the claim that the Lincoln community was informed about Roberson’s reassignment. But four staffers at Lincoln told VOSD Roberson was running the school before she got reassigned and that no one knew anything about why she was gone or whether she was coming back.


The letter wars aren’t over yet.

On Friday, Montgomery Steppe responded to Whitehurst-Payne in another fiery missive: “It is becoming painfully obvious that San Diego Unified School District finds it difficult to be transparent and accountable to our community. It is disappointing that instead of getting answers to our questions, we have gotten only the wrath of SDUSD’s public relations machine in crisis response mode.”

For years, Montgomery Steppe wrote, community members have asked for straight answers from the district. And for years, they have been dismissed.

“No one is above answering to the people who put them into public office,” she wrote. “Our business is public service.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

Sara Libby

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

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