School district woes continue

DEL MAR — A Dec. 2 special meeting called by the Del Mar Union School District board of trustees turned out to be an example of some of the issues board members hoped to settle.
Katherine White, board president, said she called the meeting to address rumors and misinformation that surfaced during previous meetings and in newspapers, including a lack of textbooks to start the school year and the allocation of school improvement program, or SIP, funds.
White said she planned to speak to those issues during an agenda item listed as “discussion regarding state of the district and communications with the community to avoid perceived lack of confidence in current goals and objectives for the district.”
But without a clearly defined focus, the discussion topics were sporadic and varied. They included everything from the ones White planned to address to the strategic plan, using solar energy as a cost-saving measure and replacing Ocean Air Principal Gary Wilson, who recently resigned to become superintendent of a nearby district.
Other than the textbook issue, few things were resolved, and frustration grew during the public comment period.
“I’m angry you wasted my family’s time today,” parent Heidi Niehart said, adding that she attended the meeting because she thought the board was going to address rumors and unauthorized meetings, “not SIP money and textbooks.”
“I am concerned about a lack of confidence in the district,” Amy Caterina said. “We have become so fractured we’re not functioning.” Caterina, who voted for the current board members, said she now regrets her vote and would initiate a recall if she could.
Charles Thorpe said he was offended by the wording of the agenda item, which White said was crafted with help from the attorney. “It suggests it’s the community’s perceptions that are the problem,” Thorpe said.
Liz Shopes blamed the board for creating a district that is “at war with each other.” She accused the administration and the board of using scare tactics such as presenting inaccurate data and conflicting reports. “You’ve encouraged a mob mentality,” she said.
“We want a school board and an administration that presents honest facts and real data. … Bring us out of the angry mosh pit this school district has become.”
Shopes was referring to information being given to a district advisory group, known as a 7/11 Committee, that was formed earlier this year to review projected school enrollment and other data to determine the amount and use of any surplus space in the district. Some proposals being discussed include possible school closures, which has angered many parents.
Not all board members totally disagreed with the comments, acknowledging that misinformation has created much of the anger, frustration and mistrust. To some degree, trustee Comischell Rodriguez said, “what we’re seeing is the reaping of what we’ve sown.”
“I know that we all want the same thing,” trustee Annette Easton said. “(Rumors and innuendos) are not healthy for the children … or anyone in the community.”
When asked by White for a solution, Superintendent Sharon McClain said she didn’t know how to avoid people talking about things that aren’t true. She suggested reviewing the communications plan developed by a district task force to see where it may be falling short and to discuss possible improvements. She said parents can also read the minutes of the board meetings, listen to the audio tapes or call the district with questions.
Karen Holty, an administrative assistant at Ocean Air School, said some of the problems may stem from an understaffed district office and the board’s apparent lack of support for its superintendent.
“You hired her (McClain), but sometimes it seems like you don’t treat her like you hired her,” Holty said. “I know there is tension between these five (board members) and that one (superintendent).
“We know it. We feel it today. … You’re making to really difficult for us to trust you,” Holty said to a round of applause.
Board members agreed to revisit the communications plan and research ways to create more open public dialogue to address rumors and misinformation.
The 7/11 Committee is expected to make its recommendations, which are advisory only and nonbinding, next month. About 30 people attended the special meeting. The district serves approximately 4,200 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

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