October 26, 2001

New San Diego Unified Board President Stifles Voice of Community and Teachers

By Yvette tenBerge

Stepping foot into the 4100 Normal Street building for this week's October 23 San Diego Unified School District Board meeting was like stepping into another world. Audience members whispered comparisons to a "police state," unable to ignore the fact that patrol cars outnumbered news vans and that uniformed and plain-clothed school and city police officers stood guard at each entrance. In case anyone missed the point, prominently posted signs reminded the audience that disruptive and disorderly conduct could result in criminal charges and up to $500 in fines.

Teachers, parents and students deposity petitions demanding the resignation of Sue Braun.

The SDUSD board's newly elected president, Ron Ott-inger, was out to prove that his would not be a "kinder, gentler" reign. Just moments into the meeting, at the first sign of life from the crowd, Mr. Ottinger banged his gavel and said,  "This is your first warning. Applause is not appropriate."

Mr. Ottinger was deemed the new board president after a 3-2 vote, a vote from which Trustees John de Beck and Frances O'Neill Zimmerman abstained as per a joint statement issued and dated October 16. In this statement Mr. de Beck and Ms. Zimmerman wrote that they would be pleased to "share the duties of regular rotating Board officership" but only after the "resignation of Mrs. Sue Braun."

Edward Lopez was elected Vice President with a 3-2 vote after his request to postpone the election until a time when all board members would vote was denied based on a legal issue.

As his first impression as president indicates, Mr. Ottinger, himself, is not without blood on his hands from the board's recent past. Mr. Ottinger addressed the audience and admitted that he needs to "change" the way that he has "operated" both "personally and civicly" and said that he "regrets" the way that he has conducted himself, but he kept the crowd on a tight leash that finally snapped.

As Marc Knapp, President of the San Diego Education Association, approached the podium to address the board on behalf of district teachers, hundreds of teachers, parents and students silently filed down to the floor of the auditorium. Each carried in his hand a petition covered with the signatures of community members and district employees demanding the resignation of Ms. Braun.

After an October 25 board meeting in which Trustee John de Beck presented proof that the achievement gap has widened and that the district's claims of "Steady Progress" are, in fact, misleading, Ms. Braun fired off an e-mail in which she suggested "shooting" Mr. de Beck and Ms. Zimmerman "with one bullet" as a means of controlling their "outrageous" behavior. Despite heavy community pressure, Ms. Braun has refused to resign from the board but did agree to relinquish her title as board president. It was in reaction to this that the crowd had come to Tuesday's meeting.

As the first line of protesters approached the stage, a not-so-civil Mr. Ottinger banged his gavel yet again and called for a 30-minute adjournment. Despite this, people continued to approach the stage. Within minutes, the long, waist-high wall that separates the audience from the board members, was covered with what is estimated to be hundreds of petitions and thousands of signatures. As police officers banded together to clear the auditorium, the audience belted out renditions of "God Bless America" and "We Shall Overcome."

(Left to Right) Sue Braun and Ron Ottinger.

Betsy Chamberlain has been a teacher for 37 years. She currently teaches at Field Elementary and was among the dozens of teachers who rushed from their classrooms to deliver the signatures of their colleagues. "Since the school board will not listen to us, everyone came together to sign these petitions. We all felt that we finally had some ownership," says Ms. Chamberlain, who claims that the petitions were a grassroots movement whose fruits were the result of a mere 24 hours of work. "People felt that by signing their names, they were saying `no' to the things that are going on in this district. We are saying `no' to what goes on at these board meetings."

Mary Garcia, an Edison Elementary School teacher who has asked that her name be changed for fear of retribution, concurs with Ms. Cham-berlain's statement. She confirms what teachers have been saying for years now: that the principle emotion among district teachers is fear. According to Ms. Garcia, this fear is generated by pressure coming from the rigid rules inherent in Chancellor of Instruction Anthony Alvarado's Blueprint for Student Success.

"At our schools, teachers were too afraid to sign their names to their own petition. We are afraid every time our principal or vice principal comes into our classrooms to observe us. We are under a lot of pressure because our administrators are under a lot of pressure," says Ms. Garcia.

Sally McArdle has been a teacher for the past 26 years. She currently teaches English at a middle school within the district and also handed in a long list of signatures at Tuesday's board meeting. "The way [Mr. Ottinger] shut down this meeting is symbolic of what is going on within this whole district. Our right to free speech has been taken away, but they can say whatever they want," says Ms. McArdle, who honed in on the way in which public participation at these so-called "public" board meetings has virtually disappeared. "As evil as Sue Braun's comment was, the most evil thing that [the board majority, Superintendent Alan Bersin and Chancellor Alvarado] have done is to steal the love of teaching away from thousands of teachers."

David Smollar, Spokesperson for the district, said that police presence at board meetings is normal when the district anticipates that there will be a large crowd or any sort of demonstration.

According to Marc Knapp, though, he personally informed the campus police as early as last week that teachers planned to make a quiet presentation, not an unruly disruption for which police would be necessary. "I called to let the school police know that nobody would be carrying picket signs and to let them know that we would try to organize the presentation in a way that nobody got into trouble," says Mr. Knapp.

On Monday October 22, Mr. Knapp received a voicemail from Mr. Ottinger in which Mr. Ottinger specified that he would not allow the public to approach the podium and exercise their right to speak. At this point, Mr. Knapp decided that Mr. Ottinger's suppression of the public voice was a violation of democracy and a blatant violation of the Brown Act. According to the Brown Act, board members must discuss policy matters in full view of the public. Mr. Knapp felt that such atrocities could not go unchecked.

"For Ron to call me up and tell me what was going to happen ahead of time tells me that he had either already discussed the matter with the board majority or that he came to this decision unilaterally," says Mr. Knapp, explaining how Mr. Ottinger may have violated the Brown Act. "When Ron left that message, this became a civil rights issue and an issue of democracy."

These issues affect not only teachers, but students, as well. Voicing the student position at Tuesday night's meeting was Tommy Bettles, the Associated Student Body President for La Jolla High School. At the close of Ottinger's 30-minute delaying action, Mr. Bettles addressed the board and specifically Ms. Braun on behalf of 15 of the 16 ASB presidents in the San Diego Unified School District.

"If any student had said anything remotely similar to what you wrote in that e-mail, he or she would be immediately expelled, no questions asked. You have approved, upheld, supported and enforced the zero tolerance policy, but now you have broken one of its most basic principles and you refuse to accept the same punishment," said Mr. Bettles, wielding the signature-laden petition in his hand. "It is obvious to everyone but you, Ms. Braun, that you must resign immediately."

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