ENCINITAS — Parents, students and community members in the San Dieguito Union High School District remain split about the next best steps toward healing in the aftermath of Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward’s racist comments about the Chinese immigrant community resulting in her placement on administrative leave.
The community has been at odds since James-Ward claimed in an April 11 Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity training that part of the reason for Asian students’ higher academic success is the fact that wealthy Chinese families can afford to immigrate to the United States, adding that “up until a couple of years ago, we had a large influx of Chinese families moving in, sight unseen, into our homes, into the community. And that requires money.”
The circulation of a video clip from the training where James-Ward made her comment elicited calls for her resignation from a crowd of offended parents, who called her comments stereotypical, othering and racist.
Despite her multiple apologies, the firestorm grew after she stated in an interview with NBC7 that her comments were used as an excuse to remove her from the district.
James-Ward has been on administrative leave since April 21, with Tina Douglas appointed as interim superintendent. Dozens of parents attended the district’s May 19 board meeting to demand that she be removed for good, arguing that she is not qualified to lead the district.
“I came here with $50 in my pocket and worked nearly 12 hours per day every day for the past 30 years. But based on her thinking, I invaded her home and her community,” said Xin Nakanishi, a parent to two San Dieguito students. “Just based on her actions and her words, I don’t think she’s qualified for the post.”
Despite her generalizing comments, for many students of color and LGBTQ+ students in the district, removing James-Ward feels like a step in the wrong direction.
Student Joy Ruppert said that in James-Ward’s few months of leadership, she has made many students that previously felt silenced feel heard, by meeting with diverse student groups and advocating for increased diversity and equity work in the district. Without James-Ward at the helm, she worries this work will stop entirely.
“What she said upset a lot of people; it was a huge generalization that really showed a lack of education. But we cannot call for Dr. Ward to resign because Dr. Ward has been the only superintendent to reach out to these communities that they want to protect,” Ruppert said, gesturing to the crowd of Chinese American parents calling for her resignation on Thursday.
“If she gets removed, all our work is down the drain giving students of color and LGBTQ students a seat at the table.”
Darwin Fishman, a member of San Diego Racial Justice Coalition who has assisted in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops in the district with the support of James-Ward, shared similar concerns. Fishman said the district was “red-flagged” for diversity and equity issues, and wants to see work to solve these issues continue.
“She was definitely on the right track,” Fishman said of James-Ward. “We wanted to do whatever we could.”
James-Ward’s own son James also showed up in support. Speaking in Mandarin during public comment to members of the Chinese American community, he explained how his mother cares deeply for the Chinese community, evidenced by how she enrolled him and his siblings in Mandarin lessons as kids and took them to China many times to gain an understanding of the culture.
“Some of my mother’s words may have caused a misunderstanding amongst the parents, and even feelings of reasonable concern, but in fact what she really wanted to do is to work towards achieving high-quality and equal educational opportunities for all of her students,” he said.
Despite the well-meaning sentiment, some parents in the district said the superintendent’s supposed connections to the Chinese community only made her comments more unacceptable.
James-Ward takes action
Since being placed on administrative leave in late April, James-Ward has retained the services of San Diego-based Gruenberg Law, with the stated intention of filing a lawsuit against the district if she is not reinstated.
Attorney Josh Gruenberg did not respond to inquiries about when a lawsuit may be filed. However, the firm sent two letters to the district board on May 4 and 17 claiming that James-Ward was dismissed in retaliation after raising concerns about a controversial redistricting map and filing a discrimination complaint against Trustee Michael Allman.
“Dr. James-Ward made multiple complaints in opposition to SDUHSD’s unlawful conduct including, but not limited to, the Board’s use of maps that could expose SDUHSD to suit,” Gruenberg said. “Our office is confident Dr. James-Ward’s claims will sustain a violation of Labor Code Section 1102.5 for SDUHSD’s retaliation against Plaintiff in direct response to her disclosures of her reasonable belief of illegality of SDUHSD’s conduct.”
Gruenberg also claimed that the board did not have a quorum when they made their 3-1 vote to place the superintendent on leave, making the decision illegitimate.
The active investigation of her complaint against Allman made any vote by him regarding her employment a conflict of interest, they claimed, adding that Board President Maureen Muir’s vote was illegitimate because she does not reside within the district.
The board unanimously rejected the assertions in the two letters in closed session, according to Muir, who also refuted the allegations that she does not reside in the district in an email to The Coast News. The teacher’s union also raised questions about her residency in 2021, hiring a private investigator to look into the matter.
“This is an old story that has already been vetted by the District Attorney. After selling our home, we started renting a house in Leucadia (92024), remaining within the district,” Muir told The Coast News. “Some believe that since my husband and I often visit and care for my 100-year-old mother-in-law, who lives out of town, this disqualifies me from renting, voting, or working within the district.”
While Gruenberg stated in the letter that James-Ward is also seeking for the San Diego County Board of Education to intervene by establishing their own quorum to discuss her dismissal, SDCOE representatives said the office does not have any authority over the district in the matter.
“The elected San Dieguito governing board is responsible for setting the district’s direction and the board currently meets state requirements for quorum in order to act on all items within its purview. If and when there is a court order or other judicial intervention which declares members of their board incapable of carrying out the duties for which they were elected, SDCOE may have a basis to intervene,” said SDCOE spokeswoman Music Watson.
Push for Allman resignation
Alongside the community members demanding that James-Ward be permanently let go on Thursday, others were calling for the resignation of Trustee Michael Allman, arguing that he exhibits disrespect for students and staff and that he retaliated against James-Ward after she filed a complaint against him earlier in the year.
Mali Woods-Drake, founder of racial justice organization Encinitas 4 Equality and a member of the district’s DEI Committee, released a statement describing Allman’s history of bullying behavior, including yelling at and interrupting other staff and creating a hostile environment.
“The group has documented and witnessed numerous instances of hostile, unethical and racist, sexist behavior that has gone unchecked for months,” Woods-Drake said in the statement. “Taking into account the above, constituents of the SDUHSD call on Trustee Allman to resign and for the Board to reinstate Superintendent James Ward immediately.”
This is not the first time Allman has faced opposition — back in 2021, the San Dieguito Faculty Association organized a recall election against the trustee, arguing that he created a hostile environment by targeting specific teachers.
While the recall ultimately failed, several students still take issue with Allman’s behavior. San Dieguito Academy senior Landon Block highlighted a Dec. 2020 comment from Allman about student board members, that the value of their opinions in the board’s decision about when to return to in-person learning was “very near zero.”
“I think the biggest thing is that it makes us feel silenced. We elect our student board members, at least at SDA, and it feels like he doesn’t want to hear from them. It created a chaotic environment in the schools, and we are seeing them not be supported,” Block said.
Block also shared his thoughts in an opinion piece published in the Times of San Diego.
This statement about the value of student input was also disturbing to district student Mace Viemeister.
“(Allman) has said he doesn’t care about student opinions. That is threatening to me because I think that students should have a say in their school board,” they said.
In an email to The Coast News, Allman denied ever exhibiting bullying behavior and said he has no intention of resigning. He also insisted that James-Ward would not be on administrative leave if it weren’t for her statements during the DEI training.
“I have thousands of parent supporters who look to me and Board President Mo Muir to represent their interests on the school board,” Allman said. “The calls for me to resign are being pushed by the Teachers Union and organizations that have no business being associated with our school district. You might hear from 10 people, I hear from thousands of parents.”
Allman added that he is confident about the outcome of the investigation into the unrelated complaint against him by James-Ward.
“Cheryl-James Ward’s complaint against me is without merit, and I categorically deny that I have created a hostile work environment. Her complaint is being investigated by an independent investigator, and I am confident that I will be exonerated of all charges,” Allman said.