An embattled San Diego Unified School board member, accused of holding a fundraiser to pay for her son's school tuition, entered a guilty plea to one count of receiving gifts in excess of the legal limit Tuesday, the San Diego County District Attorney's office said. A judge ordered Marne Foster to resign her position on the SDUSD school board.
According to her plea agreement, Foster will serve three years of probation, will spend 120 hours doing community service and will pay a fine and restitution, the DA's office said. Her resignation was tendered Tuesday morning and is effective Feb. 7. Foster will not be allowed to run for any office for four years.
The DA’s office initially opened up a criminal investigation into Foster last year. Shortly after, the DA’s office served a search warrant to the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), seeking information about the former board president.
Foster was charged with one count of receiving gifts in excess of the legal limit, $460 per year, and not reporting it. She failed to report a gift of approximately $2,000.
She filed forms in 2015 without listing gifts from that source. She amended the forms, but that does not absolve her from potential criminal implications.
In her guilty plea, Foster wrote, "a family member received gifts which qualified as gifts to me. Therefore, I received gifts in excess of the legally allowable limit..." under the government code.
Defense attorney Adam Gordon said Foster wants to take accountability and put this incident behind her.
"She is emotionally having a very difficult time, but she wanted to be accountable," Gordon said.
Foster was already the center of a civil investigation, ordered by her fellow school board members, to determine if she orchestrated a $250,000 complaint filed against the SDUSD by her son’s father.
She has previously apologized for holding a July benefit to raise money for her sons’ tuition. In attendance were people who presented possible conflicts of interest, such as contractors who work with the district and employees who may seek favors in return. Foster pledged to return the money.
Linda Zintz, Communications Director for the district, released this statement on Foster's resignation:
“Trustee Foster tendered her resignation today, to be effective Feb. 7, 2016. It will be filed this afternoon with the County Office of Education as required.
"We were informed by the District Attorney’s office that her resignation was a term of the plea agreement made today. In the coming weeks, the Board will evaluate the process to be used to fill the vacancy caused by her resignation.”
At Tuesday night's SDUSD board meeting, Trustee John Lee Evans told NBC 7 they will need to appoint someone to fill Foster's seat.
"We really need to revisit some of the issues brought up by the grand jury last summer in terms of the perception that a board member was influencing personnel decisions," said Evans.
He is concerned there is now going to be a perception that the board trustees can influence the superintendent, which is not true, he said.
Trustee Kevin Beiser said it all happened suddenly. News of a plea deal came as a surprise to the board.
"Trustee Marne Foster has done a considerable amount of very positive work," Beiser said. "Unfortunately all of that, you know, is meaningless because of her conduct, and that's really unfortunate."
Also at the meeting were school activists, who have been calling for Foster's resignation since allegations first arose against her.
Activist Sally Smith told NBC 7 she believes there is much more going on.
"I regret that there wasn't a trial to reveal the depth of corruption in this school district, and this school district needs to look closely at itself and the policies it has so it doesn't happen again," said Smith.
In a third issue, administrators at the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), where Foster’s son attended class, have accused the board trustee of using her influence to remove the principal and punish a head counselor.
In December 2013, Foster called SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten, furious about a negative college evaluation written about her son by the school’s Head Counselor Kim Abagat. Marten said she instructed Foster, who was complaining as a parent and not a trustee, to take the issue up with the district’s head of counseling or the school’s principal.
The SCPA soon contracted an independent investigator to look into Foster’s allegations against Abagat. As a result, Abagat was suspended nine days without pay, and another counselor wrote a more positive evaluation for Foster’s son, according to Abagat.
At the end of that school year, Mitzi Lizarraga, the SCPA’s principal at the time, was reassigned to a new position in the district. Lizarraga said she is “positive” that she was reassigned because of Foster.
Marten said Foster had every right to raise her concerns as a parent, and the superintendent maintains pressure from Foster had no effect on her decision to move Lizarraga.
Last year, the father of Foster’s son, John Marsh, filed a $250,000 claim against the district, saying the negative evaluation caused his son to be rejected by multiple colleges. The claim says the family had a right to the money to recuperate costs of counseling for the student and the loss of tuition aid.
However, Marsh told NBC 7’s media partner the Voice of San Diego he did not write the claim – Foster did. He claims Foster presented him with a blank complaint form and told him to sign it. Foster has said she had no part in the claim.
The SDUSD board voted in Michael McQuary as the new board president to replace Foster in 2015. Beiser said the move was part of a routine, annual switch, not linked to the investigations.