July 19 2002

Commentary

Shell Game at the School Board Meeting

By Mike MacCarthy

On July 9, 2002, San Diego City Schools held one of its summer board meetings, but this would be no boring business-like event. Thanks to a three-vote majority led by Board President Ron Ottinger, the centerpiece of this meeting was to be the public humiliation of minority-voting board member Ms. Fran Zimmerman. And what had they charged her with? Signing campaign letters to her supporters during a board meeting. And what did it gain Mr. Ottinger to try and embarrass a fellow board member? It’s called a diversionary tactic.

For the past four years, whenever parents, community groups, teachers, or students raised questions about what was really happening in San Diego City Schools, Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words sustained those of us who knew the Bersin administration was “doctoring” the truth: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” The truth is Superintendent Alan D. Bersin and school board majority have been able to fool most of the public since 1998. Whichever Board President was at the helm—Ms. Sue Braun or Mr. Ron Ottinger—they both succeeded in shifting the focus to attacking school board members or parents, and away from the real issues, which follow:

- In the fall of 2001 right after the test scores from the previous school year had been published, parents, teachers, and community members attempted to express their concerns about the state of San Diego City Schools (SDCS). Board member John de Beck and the Latino Coalition appeared before the board and presented the cold hard facts of how the “Blueprint” had failed. Within days, the school board majority launched personal criticism in the San Diego media against its minority-voting trustees, thus once again diverting public attention from the destructive “Blueprint.”

- In the spring of 2002, testimony before the school board showed that there was a $33 million dollar deficit in SDCS and that the three-vote board majority knew those facts before it voted Superintendent Bersin a new $1 million contract, along with $2.2 million for his executive staff. Immediately, new Board President Ottinger leveled charges of anti-Semitism against board critics and again the district was able to implement its “Wag the Dog” approach to dealing with city school budget problems.

Now comes the summer of 2002 (July 9th) and there are now many serious issues facing SDCS: (a) Another letter from the California Department of Education outlining how SDCS has failed to observe the law with respect to Title I funds for disadvantaged children; (b) Several dozen parents have filed suit in Federal Court for over $100 million because SDCS improperly used federal and state Title I funds to underwrite the “Blueprint for Success”; (c) Local families and organizations have filed suit against SDCS because of its documented failure to properly spend money earmarked for students with special education, learning disabilities, and mental health needs; (d) the growing achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students; (e) this September there will be no 9th grade at Lincoln High School and no one from SDCS has notified the parents; (f) the escalating animosity between this administration and parents as witnessed by the deteriorating situation at Johnson Elementary.

Before Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado and their team forced the so-called “Blueprint” on Johnson Elementary, its students had substantially narrowed the achievement gap and were well on their way to new heights of literacy and learning excellence. However, Johnson parents and teachers insisted on using phonics as the basis of their reading programs, and the Bersin team couldn’t have that. Never mind that the New Zealand and University of Pittsburgh “whole language” teaching philosophies are a documented failure, especially for children of color.

So, what does the three-vote city school board majority do to divert attention from these issues? Assert at the July 9th board meeting that one of its two (Fran Zimmerman and John de Beck) minority-voting members committed a “crime” during a June 11th meeting; this strategy again prevented discussion of the real issues. Instead they spent over two hours deciding whether to spend $6,000 to investigate Ms. Zimmerman; predictably, they voted 3-2 to spend the money.

The lesson for us all is that we, the people, must remember to keep our eye on the ball. We have to make sure that we focus the light of truth beneath the district’s PR shell game. The question we need to keep asking is: After all the money spent on Mr. Bersin and his executive team, after all their promises, and after all these (four) years, has the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children decreased, stayed the same, or increased? If the truth is anything except a resounding and significant “decreased,” it’s time for a public in-depth audit of the books of city schools. San Diego parents, community groups, teachers, and the business community are tired of being deceived by this administration, especially when it comes to something as important as the education of our youth. The key to the future of our children is now, not later. We must hold Superintendent Bersin and his three-vote school board majority accountable, now. That’s our job!

Mike MacCarthy is Publisher of “San Diego Writer’s Monthly” and President of Voters For Truth in Education (VO/TE). He can be reached at mcarthy@sandiego-online.com.

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