In a highly unusual move, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten has released private personnel information in an effort to clear allegations brought against Board President Marne Foster.
The release was ordered by the San Diego Unified School Board, which met Tuesday night to approve an independent investigation into Foster.
Foster is accused of using her influence to cause administrative changes at the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), of holding a private fundraiser for her sons’ college tuitions, and of orchestrating a complaint filed against the district for $250,000.
After the board decided to approve the investigation, the trustees issued a proclamation, honoring Foster for the work she has done in the district.
“Marne has been a real leader on issues that are critical to thousands and thousands of students in our district. That story needs to be told as well,” said Foster’s fellow Trustee Richard Barrera. “It doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the issues that we are going to call for in an investigation.”
However, parent Gloria Tran questioned how the board could address accusations against Foster and celebrate her directly afterward.
“I don't negate all the good Marne has done. I believe she has done good things for her community and the district,” said Tran. “However, the good does not outweigh the bad behavior.”
In December 2013, Foster began raising complaints about SCPA after her son received a negative college evaluation from Head Counselor Kim Abagat. Former SCPA principal Mitzi Lizarraga said she is positive that she was reassigned to another position in the district because of Foster.
But the report released by Marten shows problems existed at the school before Foster became involved. The issues date back to when former Superintendent Bill Kowba was in charge, according to Marten.
“He was concerned about staffing,” said Marten in an interview with NBC 7 Tuesday. “He was concerned about ongoing conflict in the counseling office. He was concerned about disciplinary practices and racialized outcomes.”
In a statement introducing the newly released documents, Marten wrote that more than 20 staff members shared concerns about SCPA’s campus climate and its leadership over the past several years.
As Marten stepped into the role of superintendent, Kowba explained the school’s ongoing problems to her and said “he wanted to find a better match for Ms. Lizarraga’s skill set,” Marten wrote.
Plans to transition Lizarraga from SCPA’s principal to a districtwide arts leadership position were carried out when Marten became superintendent, and Lizarraga left SCPA at the end of the 2013-2014 school year. She resigned from the district position on Oct. 31, 2014.
School advocates have accused Foster of putting pressure on Marten to make the staffing change.
Marten addressed the concern, writing, “Yes, I did receive pressure. And let it be known that I receive pressure all the time from many stakeholders to make decisions from their perspective. I hear from community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents as well as board members all the time.”
“However, I will say clearly and succinctly, the pressure I received from a board member did not cause the reassignment of Ms. Lizarraga,” she continued.
Questions have also been raised about why school counselor, Kim Abagat, was suspended without pay after writing the negative evaluation for Foster’s son.
Marten wrote in her statement that in December 2013, she received a call from a very angry Foster, who started to explain the situation. Marten said she immediately interrupted Foster and asked, “Are you calling as a parent or as a Trustee?”
When Foster said she was calling as a parent, Marten told her that the conversation needed to end and she must bring up the issue with the school’s principal. Marten has told NBC 7 that Foster had every right as a parent to try to resolve issues with her son’s education.
According to the statement, “Foster explained that she did not wish to work with the Principal,” so Marten referred her to the district’s head of counseling and guidance.
Marten said she informed the district’s general counsel about the conversation. Soon after, SCPA contracted Robert Abel Investigative Services to look into Foster’s allegations that Abagat, who was not officially her son’s counselor, should not have prepared an evaluation that was inaccurate, misleading and harmful.
According to the investigator’s report, Abagat maintained that her evaluation was accurate and fair. But in his conclusion, Abel said she completed the report “in a manner not meeting professional school counseling standards.”
He said she did not gather enough information about Foster’s son from others. As a result, Abagat was suspended for nine days.
Abel ended his report with this observation:
“There clearly exists great animosity and distrust by Marne Foster toward Ms. Lizarraga. There is compelling evidence that — despite recent efforts by [redacted] to work with his subordinate counseling staff — there are critical, unresolved issues among the three SCPA counselors, and between the SCPA counseling staff and Ms. Lizarraga. I recommend an examination of these two, above-stated dysfunctional relationships.”
In her statement, Marten emphasized that she has not released information about Lizarraga and Abagat because they dealt with personnel issues. However, she said because both women have brought the allegations into the public arena, the board decided to release the district’s information, though the decision could open them up to lawsuits.
“The reasons we provided it is because the public’s interest and the public’s trust outweigh an individual’s privacy at this point,” said Marten.
Parent Gloria Tran believes the board is not going far enough by hiring a private investigator — saying the person will not be independent enough.
“The district is going to pay for the independent investigator and he answers back to the board. No. That needs to be completely separate,” she said. “And as for the money that they’re going to spend on the investigator, that should go to the children.”
It’s unclear which agency the board plans to hire for the internal investigation.
NBC 7 reached out to Foster for comments on this story, but we have not heard back.