ENCINITAS — Joyce Dalessandro has been a San Dieguito Union High School District board member since 1996. No, that is not a typo. Her sixth-consecutive term is expected to carry her to 2020 for 24 years of uninterrupted tenure.
But not if Wendy Gumb, parent of a Torrey Pines High School student, has her say. Gumb voted for Dalessandro in 2016, but now wants the incumbent recalled.
Gumb laughed at the unusual situation of being a supporter turned adversary. “Like a lot of people, I figured someone who’d been on the board for many years had the experience the district needed,” she said. But as Gumb started attending school board meetings over the past two years, she did not like what she saw.
“As my questions went unanswered, and I watched Dalessandro’s demeanor and the way she interacted with common people like me who are taxpayers, the more I lost confidence in her ability to lead.”
Numerous people attended the May 10 school board meeting to publicly express their support for Dalessandro, including students, parents and staff. Tim Staycer, a teacher, football coach and union president for the district, praised Dalessandro’s “tireless dedication” and said she had “earned the teachers’ and community’s support.” His comments were met with loud applause.
Gumb believes the district is in a “downward slide, and the board members are taking their eye off the ball.” She wants new, “forward-thinking” leadership and doesn’t believe Dalessandro can “make the hard decisions” needed to set things straight because of her “personal feelings for the community.”
One specific area of concern for Gumb and other parents who spoke at the May 10 school board meeting is SDUHSD’s spending.
According to its own internally generated report, the district is running in the red, with an anticipated shortfall this school year of more than $8 million.
The district, which consists of five middle and five high schools, serves about 13,000 students from Carmel Valley to south Carlsbad. Responsible for almost $135 million in revenues, the SDUHSD board oversees an enormous budget.
The financial outlook for the following two school years does not look rosy either, with deficits and diminishing reserves projected. The district report showed anticipated reserves of about 6.5 percent for the 2020–2021 school year. By contrast, it once held reserves of about 20 percent during the 2015–2016 school year.
The board gives the impression that it’s flush with cash, voting 4-1 on May 10 to spend $25,200 to have electric-vehicle charging stations installed at La Costa Canyon High School and Canyon Crest Academy. The money will come out of the Capital Facilities Fund, not the General Fund.
The lone dissenter, board member John Salazar asked before the motion, “How is this a benefit for education?”
The board meeting became rather rowdy at times, with board member Beth Hergesheimer threatening to remove parents who heckled and talked beyond their allotted three minutes. There were calls for board members to resign, accusations of collusion and lying, and laughter when Superintendent Eric Dill said that the board members were good about recusing themselves when a conflict of interest arises.
In a draft handbook under review, Salazar brought attention to the recommendation that the board members ask their agenda questions in advance of meeting because, “We believe in the concept of ‘no surprises.’” Salazar disagreed, saying they’d be “handcuffing future board members” who might want to ask questions at the meetings and could feel pressured not to.
Board member Maureen “Mo” Muir said to Hergesheimer, “Beth, you once said to me after a board meeting that by my asking of a question, I made the meeting go on longer.” Clearly surprised by the accusation, Hergesheimer denied that she would have ever said that but indicated that her words might have been misconstrued.
Dalessandro said that when the board “asks questions of staff out of the blue, it really puts them on the spot.” She recommended that her fellow board members read the agenda and then ask questions via email “like we’ve always done.”
Another item in the handbook that brought about heated exchanges was the recommendation that when board members receive emails from the public or staff, they thank the individual and indicate that they are forwarding the email to the superintendent.
In the policy’s defense, Dalessandro said that none of them had the authority as individuals to directly solve people’s concerns. To that Salazar retorted, “Neither does Congress, but that doesn’t prevent an individual Congressman from expressing his opinion to constituents.” The board decided to table the discussion and have a workshop at a later date.
Responding to a push for increased transparency, an agenda item for videotaping the board meetings was brought to a vote on May 10. Currently, only audio recordings are available, which some parents said are not posted in a timely manner. The cost of the camera was $4,000. Staff, only if available, would be paid to operate it.
A parent in the audience suggested that the board hold meetings for free at one of the high school’s state-of-the-art theaters. A student could film the meetings and gain experience. As the board discussed that suggestion and the cost of the service, Dalessandro noted her preference to continue meeting at the district office because “it’s centrally located.” She also asked, “How many people will tune in anyway?”
To that, Salazar responded, “How many people use a ramp to get into a building? It doesn’t matter.”
Dalessandro then called Salazar a “grandstander” and said the “public would be horrified by the behavior of the audience” were they to watch the meetings.
The item passed, with Dalessandro and Hergesheimer voting against it.
After the meeting, parent Lea Wolf said she’s tired of the board and administrators boasting of the district’s high academic distinctions. Wolf said, “It’s not their credit to take.” She explained that affluent parents make up for SDUHSD’s shortfalls by paying for tutors and counselors and getting the job done themselves.
Though Gumb is confident that she’ll get enough signatures for the petition to hold a special recall election, she’s not concerned if it doesn’t happen. “Even if the recall effort is not successful, at least voters will have more information to consider in the next election.”