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In recent months, Del Mar Union School District board meetings have taken a dramatic shift. Often packed with more than 100 parents, teachers, former faculty and members of the community, the tension is palpable.
Public comment after public comment paints a picture of an administration at odds with its teachers, as parents are learning from their children’s teachers about staff dismissals and alleged strife with district leaders. A survey conducted by the teachers’ union suggest the vast majority of teachers in the district do not feel respected or cared for.
“What we have heard is that our district perpetuates a culture of fear and leaves our teachers feeling like if they don’t toe the line, they will be the next to go,” said parent Esther Rubio-Sheffrey at the March 16 board meeting.
Parent Chelsea Ziskin said at an April 27 board meeting that teachers in the district have been working in fear for years.
“If everything we are hearing is true, the district and the board should be very concerned,” Ziskin said.
It all came to a boiling point when a principal, Jason Soileau, was allegedly pushed out by district leaders in March.
Gina Vargas, a teacher at Del Mar Heights, who said she will be retiring soon, was one of the few teachers who has been willing to speak at these meetings.
“Jason was smart, kind and dedicated… he thrived in the most difficult situations,” Vargas said at the April 27 meeting. “But suddenly he was gone. He was deemed not a good fit. Five other principals in the last eight years were also not good fits. This is not okay.”
Vargas said staff has learned from the dismissals that people are expendable.
“I was warned about speaking tonight by other teachers who are afraid to speak,” she said. “They worry that speaking up puts you in a bad light with our administration and district office.”
In recent weeks, parents have been circulating a 2019 survey conducted by the Del Mar Teachers Association, the district’s teachers union, where about two-thirds of teachers and other certificated staff participated. It indicated that 18 percent of teachers felt they were respected as professionals and 12 percent believed the district administration cares about their emotional wellbeing.
Two board members, Gee Wah Mok and Scott Wooden, expressed interest in a third-party review during a recent board meeting. The board has not requested an investigation into the allegations. The district’s other five board members did not respond to Voice of San Diego’s requests for comment.
Teachers and faculty members described an uncomfortable work environment in which they fear being scolded over something as small as a poster hanging on their walls, or questioned about the nature of sick or personal days, but they can’t speak up for themselves or voice their opinions for fear of it backfiring.
Several former teachers and principals have said that they have been let go because of what they believe were small differences in opinion with the administration. They were told by the administration they were no longer a fit.
Ryan Stanley, assistant superintendent of human resources, told Voice of San Diego the allegations do not align with his experience, nor that of many colleagues he speaks to regularly.
“I have made it my practice to be in the trenches with our team and to welcome any concerns or suggestions that they may have to continuously improve how we serve our students and families,” Stanley wrote.
Kevin Cunha, president of the Del Mar Teachers Association, said during the April 27 board meeting that the survey was presented to the board. Cunha said he and others met with the board to discuss the survey, but no action was taken.
“If our efforts have not been sufficient to warrant your involvement in finding a resolution, we would ask that an agenda item be added to the next board meeting to discuss ways to collect authentic, honest and valid feedback to help guide your next steps,” Cunha said.
An agenda item to discuss the survey or the teachers’ concerns has still not been set.
Many of the teachers who have been let go over the past several years have been on temporary contracts, making them at-will employees who serve on contracts for one school year or shorter periods of time.
There are four classifications of public-school employees: permanent, probationary, temporary and substitute.
The district can renew temporary teachers’ contracts for the next school year, or release them with or without cause. But at Del Mar Union, some teachers have been on temporary contracts for upwards of six years, making parents and teachers question whether the district is using temporary contracts to dismiss staff more easily.
Stanley told Voice of San Diego the district follows the process outlined through the California Education Code with temporary contract teachers.
Summer Wyman taught at Torrey Hills School and Del Mar Heights from 2015 to 2020. She specialized in teaching art within the science technology engineering art music (STEAM+) program.
Wyman was on temporary contracts during each year of her time there.
At the start of the pandemic, before school closures went into effect, the district was planning their annual STEAM+ Night, an event that highlights the STEAM+ program. It was expected to have 400 to 500 people in attendance in an indoor space.
Wyman voiced her concerns about holding the event to both of her schools’ principals and to the site representatives of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, a branch of the California teachers union.
After she raised those concerns, she felt her relationship with her principal at Torrey Hills shifted.
“It was strange because all of a sudden she was coming into my room a lot and she was asking for meetings,” Wyman said. “I felt like her demeanor toward me took a 180. It was very weird.”
Wyman was later told her contract would not be renewed for the following year.
“I had good reviews the whole time I was there, but they told me in the letter that I was ‘not the right fit,’” Wyman said. “Since I’ve spoken out, I’ve had other teachers message me privately and say, ‘the same thing happened to me, I was a dedicated teacher and I loved my students and I loved the teachers at my school, and all of a sudden, I spoke out about something, and they let me go.’”
In Wyman’s last performance review, months before she was let go, her principal at Torrey Hills said she was exceeding district requirements. The principal also wrote Wyman a glowing letter of recommendation after Wyman was told that her contract wouldn’t be renewed.
Jason Soileau, a former principal of Del Mar Heights School has also alleged that he was pushed out by the district, as Voice previously reported.
Soileau said he was approached by Stanley and told to either resign or be demoted.
“In January, he came and told me that cabinet had discussed me and that there were instructional leadership concerns and I asked what those concerns were, and he couldn’t give me anything specific or anything in writing,” Soileau told Voice.
Soileau then had some “campus walks” with other principals and Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Peterson and received nothing but positive feedback from teachers. A few weeks later, Soileau was told to either resign or return to the classroom to teach.
His most recent performance review by the district’s Superintendent McClurg was glowing, and so was the letter of recommendation that McClurg wrote for Soileau after he was told to resign.
“The accomplishments you have made as principal of Del Mar Heights School during the 2020-2021 school year have been outstanding.” McClurg wrote in the review shared with Voice.
Soileau still has no idea why he was pushed out, but said he waited to find another job that knew his story before speaking out against the district because he feared that he would be retaliated against. Soileau is now the principal at Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista.
“I do know that throughout the district, teachers are concerned about voicing their opinions,” Soileau said. “I can tell you that since I’ve gone, none of the former principals speak to me. Friends that I had there that I thought would be lifelong friends, have all disconnected from me, and I don’t know why other than they were scared to be associated with me because I went public.”