An Abrupt and Controversial Reassignment at the School for Creative and Performing Arts Leaves Parents Angry
By Doug Porter
Mitzi Lizarraga ran San Diego Unified’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) for seven years. Test scores improved, the school was named one of the best in the country repeatedly over the past 4 years and students were sought after by prestigious colleges and universities.
On Tuesday, June 10th, two days before graduation this year, she was gone. Students and staff were told Ms. Lizarraga was attending to an urgent and personal matter. “Interim” Principal Dr. Jenna Pesavento would be tasked with handing out diplomas to departing seniors.
Parent Donna M. Silva-Garcia heads up the Friends of SCPA support group and actively volunteers her time at the school:
I arrived at school Tuesday morning. Principal Lizarraga was busy at her desk. The office was a bustle as Seniors were trying to wrap up loose ends, prepare for Grad Night that day and Graduation later that week. I was trying to catch Principal Lizarraga to review the timetable and set-up for Graduation later that week. I noticed her gone from her office mid-afternoon. I returned on Wednesday to hear from the office she was attending a personal and urgent matter. I asked when she was expected back. The office did not know.
A Sad Graduation
But some seniors weren’t buying it. Graduation, usually one the high points in the life of a high school student, was fraught with rumors and dissension. Some seniors were talking about boycotting the ceremony. Other seniors wanted to hold up signs. Students were upset, some even in tears. Parents were in disbelief and did not understand what was happening.
On the evening of Ms. Lizarraga’s last day, seniors boarded busses after school heading to Disneyland for an all-night graduation party. Although the trip was not a school sponsored event, it was part of the institutional tradition. During that trip students witnessed one young man boasting about his mother firing the school principal.
That young man’s mother happens to be on the San Diego Unified Board of Trustees. Marne Foster’s SDUSD sub-district includes SCPA and her family has a long history with the school.
Her mother retired last year from a teaching position at the school. Ms Foster attended and graduated from SCPA, as did her children. She made an inspirational speech about the greatness of the school at the graduation, the same day most everybody was realizing Ms. Lizarraga was gone.
Nobody knew what to think. The abrupt timing of Principal Lizarraga’s departure certainly fueled suspicions that something was seriously amiss.
In the weeks following her disappearance from the school, parents have come to believe that Trustee Foster’s interventions with Principal Lizarraga on behalf of her son were the primary reason for her sudden departure.
Based on conversations with students, it certainly seems as though that young man did get many considerations from the school administration, including being allowed to participate in functions he should have been excluded from based on attendance and disciplinary factors.
Frank Engle: quotes one administrator’s response to questions about these claims:
“Everyone is scared to death!!! I’m keeping my head down and my mouth shut.”
These are serious allegations, and, if true, would seem to put Ms. Foster in the position of violating Board Governance Polices. There are also huge privacy issues coming into play, not to mention that Ms Lizarraga’s dismissal is a “personnel matter” and therefore not a public matter.
It would be easy to write this story off as yet another public official abusing power for personal reasons, but don’t; it gets way more complicated.
On June 20th parents of SCPA students received an automated call from the school district purporting to address the rumors swirling in the community. The caller said Ms. Lizarraga was in fact, on a personal leave of absence and was still principal at the school.
That phone call didn’t stop parents from showing up at the June 24th evening meeting (video) of the SDUSD trustees to make sure the district understood the level of support for Lizarraga. They were instructed to testify during the public comment section of the board meeting since there was nothing about SCPA on the agenda.
What the parents, who’d already started an online petition, didn’t know was that a decision regarding Ms. Lizarraga had been made in closed session at 2pm that afternoon.
The Superintendent and Board sat impassively, lying by omission, already knowing that they had approved the decision to remove Principal Lizarraga and let Students, Teachers, Parents, a former Board member and Community Members make a plea to keep her as Principal.
Your lying was to:
- A student who actually sat next to you on your board as a Student Representative
- A parent who WON the SDUSD 2013 “Volunteer of the Year” award
- A Teacher with a Doctorate that only came to SCPA with his extensive credentials because of Principal Lizarraga
- And one of your own – a former Board Member that served 8 YEARS as recently as 2004 in the very position you now hold.
The District Tries to Make Peace
The school district figured things would blow over. They went ahead and scheduled a meeting with parents and students to discuss criteria for selecting a new principal on July 9th. (You can watch an uncut version of the video here)
Area Superintendent Lamont Jackson brought along the District Relations Department’s Moises Aguirre and Chief Human Resources Officer Tim Asfazadour. It was, to say the least, a rocky session as parents refused to accept the idea the Mitzi Lizarraga was no more.
From the Times of San Diego:
Nearly 100 parents and students gathered with administrators at a meeting that was called for community input on the selection of a new principal. As the meeting began, many chanted, “We want Mitzi.”
“If we have a say in the community, we want Mitzi back,” said one parent.
“This is a difficult transition; I get that,” said Lamont Jackson, area 2 superintendent, explaining that it was a personnel matter, and adding, “I made a decision to move her to a district-level position.”
A number of parents asked at the meeting if trustee Marne Foster, whose son attends the school, was involved in the decision. Some asked for an investigation. Jackson said he couldn’t comment on “speculation and concerns and rumors.”
A few days later Jackson reached out to some of the participants from that meeting, inviting them to a July 16th sit-down with Superintendent Cindy Marten.
Prior to meeting with parents, Marten had a private session lasting at least 45 minutes with a recent graduated student and an incoming senior. No minutes or recording of the meeting exists, but angry parent Frank Engle posted the following:
It is rumored that Marten also interrogated the students about the impact of a statement made by a relative of a Board member. This individual supposedly had no relationship to the removal of Principal Lizarraga. These “relative” questions were ONLY asked of the trusting students and not of the adult attendees. In fact the Students were not even allowed an opening statement…possibly for fear they would rehash the questions they were asked privately by Marten in front of the group.
A parent who was at the July 16th meeting added the following in an email to me:
I can say following the meeting, the students, though professional and respectful of Cindy, were tired and felt she had already made a decision prior to the meeting and was trying to convince them she knew best.
That’s pretty much what Marten said to the parents. She also tried to assure them that
- The district wasn’t interested in changing the school direction;
- Did not want to “water down” SCPA’s vision as an arts focused school;
- Would slow the process down, saying the search for a new principal would most likely be national or even an international search;
- A democratic process will be used to select the principal selection committee as it relates to students, parents and faculty
- She promised to keep communication open and clear about process and updates.
By this time, the district was starting tell people that Mitzi Lizarraga wasn’t merely being reassigned, she was being promoted. The funny thing about that story is the person being promoted has no clue.
From Ms. Lizarraga’s Facebook (Posting to friends from Europe while on vacation):
“I know our paths will cross although the District has not assigned me to a site yet. Oh well!”
One Huge Problem for the District
Here’s what Ms Lizaragga brought to the table as principal and (one would assume) the standard the district has to strive for in replacing her. What follows is the short version of her resume, put together by Frank Engle:
- Clear California Administrative Credential
- Preliminary Designated Subjects Vocational Education Teaching Credential
- Certificate of Completion Principals’ Center for Educational Leadership
- Bachelor of Arts
- Masters of Arts
- 25 years as a Principal in a nationally renowned Arts focused School or Academy
- 5 Years CEO of a nationally renowned Arts Academy
- 8 Years as a performer in an Arts and/or Performance discipline
- 8 years as an instructor in an Arts and/or Performance disipline
- 4 years VP Level – Finance or Banking Corporation
- 14 Appointments to National and Regional Arts Organization Board of Directors as President, Vice-President and Member
- 9 Appointments to a wide variety of Regional, State and National Committees, Advisory Boards and Leadership Organizations including GATE, Performance Artists (Theatre, Dance, Opera) and Black Mayors
The long version of her resume is seven pages long. It’s kinda obvious SDUSD isn’t gonna find a similarly qualified applicant. And it should be obvious more is at play here than a relationship gone bad with a Trustee.
SCPA As a Political Football
There is a great deal of political tension over the issue of SDUSD Magnet schools like SCPA vs. Neighborhood schools. Magnet schools–which were originally a solution to court ordered desegregation– are, in many ways, yesteryear’s solution to what’s perceived as ailing the district.
Contemporary thought on best practices for school districts, especially under Ms Marten (who created a strong school in the face of much adversity) is that every neighborhood should have a great school.
The problem is that many engaged parents like the present set up. From an article in Voice of San Diego, published last fall:
The number of parents opting out of their neighborhood schools in the San Diego Unified School District is only growing. Parents shop around, finding schools with better test scores, magnet schools offering specialized programs, and, more and more, they enroll in charter schools.
The number of students choosing an alternative to their neighborhood school has increased steadily each year. This year, 44.5 percent of students in the San Diego Unified School District – a total of 58,060 – are attending a school other than the one designated as their home school.
That’s up from 33.1 percent from those who chose a non-neighborhood school during the 2004-05 school year.
The Racial and Sexual Aspects
While the upheaval at Lincoln High School has been the most public manifestations of tensions in the district, the similarities in the leadership crises are all too obvious for many parents at SCPA. Black, Latino and Asian parents have crossed swords in the past in this area, all striving to do what they thought was best for their children. Mostly people don’t want to talk about these conflicts; but they exist.
The debate between the virtues of neighborhood vs magnet schools is considered by some activists to be a proxy for power struggles between ethnic, racial and socio-economic groups. Fights over funding for dual purpose schools along with resentments fueled by “North of (Interstate) 8” parents add to this perception.
Former Board member Shelia Jackson (who preceded Ms Foster) advocated to make SCPA a “neighborhood-only” school, and to eliminate its “magnet” status, drawing students from all over town.
There was in fact a discussion between the central office District and Principal Lizarraga earlier his year concerning the future of SCPA. Here’s how parent Donna M. Silva-Garcia outlined topics covered in those conversations to me in an email:
Top performing arts middle/high schools throughout the US are located in the city’s downtown areas. Shouldn’t SDSCPA be moved downtown where mass transit is centralized? If the SCPA location is an issue, keep the magnet school, move the magnet school where it belongs – central to San Diego increasing access by parents, students and new partners! Downtown is being developed, new art continues to be added, new theatre companies are being formed, Balboa Park is near and there is a new population in San Diego that lives downtown. A new synergy is forming and shouldn’t SDSCPA be a part of it? SDSCPA gets out of a cluster that does not support it and is given the resources and support it needs to grow and thrive.
Another unsaid consideration with SCPA has to do with it’s status as a sanctuary for students with non-mainstream sensibilities who didn’t always fit in at conventional schools. Historically teenagers with an artistic bent have been vulnerable to bullying and behavioral problems associated with being “different.”
SCPA provided a safe haven for parents and students, especially LGBTQ students. The prospect of losing that protected status is one of the biggest fears motivating advocates for the school. The District seems, based on my observations as a parent, not to understand this aspect of the problem. Race and sex are not easy topics of conversation, but fears connected to them run throughout this situation.
I reached out to Superintendent Martin and several members of the School Board, once in June and again just last week as this story started taking shape. In June I received a reply from the District Relations folks telling me that Ms. Lizarraga was taking a personal leave of absence.
As I’ve been told repeatedly that everybody with any inside knowledge of this matter was going to remain incommunicado for a variety of legal reasons, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Trustee Scott Barnett on Monday:
While I cannot comment on any specifics regarding all you have written, I can say with full confidence that I believe the the Superintendent’s action was the right thing for the right reason at the right time. I believe the facts (many of which are not public) back this view.
I also am confident that if any formal complaints (of any employee, administrator or Board Trustee) have been or are made that they will be fully and appropriately investigated.
I have found at my time on the SDUSD board, when we have been faced with various controversial events, that there are always several sides to each story. The many shades of grey in truth overwhelm the black and white.
That said, I wish to praise the amazing service Ms Lizarraga has performed on behalf of SCPA students. If the Superintendent sees fit, I would whole-heartedly support Ms Lizarraga taking on another significant role in serving our kids.
Barnett is undoubtedly right about the many shades of grey here. But for the students and parents, the proof of SDUSD’s good intentions will be what kind of real support and leadership gets put into place at SCPA. And note that Trustee Barnett’s letter excludes the possibility of any parent or student complaints factoring into any investigation.
Right now many parents and students of SCPA don’t see a bright future. And I can’t blame them. The timing of this whole mess couldn’t be worse: it’s July, nobody gives a damn unless a news story involves zombies.
I’m just glad my daughter graduated from SCPA this year.
POSTSCRIPT: This story took a long time to develop, as those affected were initially unwilling to speak out. Parents feared speaking out would jeopardize any chance of retaining Ms. Lazarraga.
Students actually took an oath not to talk about what they knew, partially out of concern for the ex-Principal and partially because “snitches are bitches,” to quote one. And SCPA faculty–as is true for many district-wide–still fear retribution following years of unrest within the school district.
Eventually I did get about a dozen parents and students to tell me what they knew, or thought they knew. I know there is an effort being made presently to get students who witnessed specific events to sign a petition to the school board.
Principal Mitzi Lizarraga, who was traveling in Europe, was not a source for this story. Given that she has a career and a reputation to protect, I’m told it’s likely she’ll accept whatever position is offered in the District’s Visual and Performing Arts department for the few years she has left until retirement.
I’m certain that I didn’t cover every aspect of this complicated story. If you’d like to add to this narrative, please email me (See below) or add a comment.
POST-POSTSCRIPT:The Starting Line Column will resume in its regular role and format on Thursday. Tomorrow my contribution to the “Who Runs San Diego?” series will appear, focusing on the role and ownership of broadcast media.
On This Day: 1958 – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was authorized by the Congress. 1963 – Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” was released. 1970- Following a 5-year table grape boycott, Delano-area growers filed into the United Farm Workers union hall in Delano, Calif., to sign their first union contracts.
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