Education Matters: Chaos at San Dieguito school district


The San Dieguito Union High School District offices in Encinitas. (Google Street View photo)

Marsha Sutton

Everyone knows the quote by now: “Here in San Dieguito, we have an influx of Asians from China, and the people who are able to make that journey are wealthy. You cannot come to America and buy a house for $2 million unless you have money.”

The now-infamous comment was followed up with this: “In my community in Carmel Valley … we had a large influx of Chinese families moving in, sight unseen, into our homes, into the community, and that requires money. The whole family comes.”

After making those remarks in April at a San Dieguito Union High School District training session focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, Cheryl James-Ward was placed on paid leave from her position as superintendent by a school board vote of 3-1.

The comments drew outrage from Carmel Valley’s Asian American community, many of whom said at subsequent school board meetings and to the media that they came to the U.S. with nothing, found the comments insulting, and demanded that James-Ward be fired.

Education Matters by Marsha SuttonHer statement was in response to a question asked by Trustee Michael Allman at the DEI workshop: “Do we know why Asians do so well in school?”

To be clear, Allman’s question was not directed at James-Ward. It was directed in general at the DEI facilitators. The video (at 1:20:20) clearly indicates that he was not addressing her by name.

Although it may seem trivial, the fact that Allman asked the facilitators the question and not James-Ward is important, because those who are defending James-Ward are saying Allman baited her and set her up to say something inflammatory.

In a story about this issue in The San Diego Union-Tribune, it was mistakenly reported that Allman asked James-Ward that question.

When I pointed out that this wasn’t technically correct, the reporter, after reviewing the meeting, agreed that Allman was addressing the workshop moderators and not James-Ward with his question.

“I corrected this in my story online, and we’ll have a print correction this weekend,” she wrote. The corrections were made.

I’m not defending Allman, but let’s not conflate the two issues.

James-Ward and her supporters say Allman deliberately entrapped her with the question when that’s not the case. She is responsible for her controversial statements about Asian American student success, which were offered freely — and rather injudiciously, I might add.

Constituents can certainly oppose Allman and want his resignation for a variety of other reasons, but to imply that James-Ward was set up by Allman with his question is an unnecessary deflection.


“Cheryl James-Ward has retained our services regarding her being placed on administrative leave in retaliation for her complaints of gender discrimination against Michael Allman,” James-Ward’s attorney, Josh Gruenberg, wrote in a May 4 letter to San Dieguito district trustees.

Allman may be guilty of harassment and some measure of toxicity in his interactions with the public and district staff. Those allegations are under investigation and may yet prove to be warranted, but that issue of retaliation has little to do with the reason James-Ward was placed on leave.

By separating the two issues, I’ve been accused of overlooking the “white privilege” component, with one letter-writer saying Allman and “his straight white cronies” cast James-Ward aside.

It’s hard to imagine that any school board whose superintendent made those remarks would let it slide. So I’m not seeing the relevance of anyone’s gender, color, religion, sexual preference or any other personal characteristic.

A comment like that cannot simply be swept away, no matter the person’s race, ethnicity or gender.

Allman has made controversial statements himself, some that perhaps should have resulted in a censure — which is an appropriate punitive measure if fellow board members believe those words or actions don’t align with board policies or proper public decorum.

One example that comes to mind is a meeting in which he said student school board members offer little if any value to the board (I’m paraphrasing).

If a superintendent had said this, they would likely be reprimanded.

Allman can act like a bull in a china shop and sometimes seems unable to exhibit patience and compromise, qualities that are mandatory if any agreement is to be reached among entities with traditionally conflicting priorities. Being on a school board is not like being the executive of a corporation.

Allman did apologize for what he said about student board members, as did James-Ward for her comments.

In a public apology in a district post, she wrote, “I should have slowed down when making the comments which did not provide the true complexities of student success and challenges, stereotyped a community, and caused harm.”

Further in the letter, she wrote, “(W)ith the right conditions for learning, every student can be successful … so I apologize to any student if what I said is construed as otherwise.”

Even though they both may have said something they regret, Allman was duly elected by voters and James-Ward is an employee of the district, which makes a difference.

A school board can’t fire or place on leave an elected official the way it can an employee. One punishment for an improper action or statement by an elected school board member is censure — and ultimately a possible rejection by voters next time around. But they can’t be fired or placed on leave.

Making choices

In some ways, the fight over James-Ward’s future in the district feels like a battle between the teachers union and its allies, and those who believe the San Dieguito teachers union has held too much power and control over school board elections.

District teachers union President Duncan Brown said in a June 5 San Diego Union-Tribune story, “Before this school board majority took hold, the district was stable … When we don’t have candidates that view things similarly, we have the chaos that we’re seeing now.”

It’s hard to argue with that. In fact, he essentially acknowledges that everything hums along nicely when the union controls the school board. This was the case for nearly two decades, until the election in 2020.

A difference of opinion is not in the best interests of union goals, and anyone — even those speaking honestly and with civility — can be attacked if they dare to vote contrary to union edicts. Witness the recent resignation of former trustee Melisse Mossy, driven off by hate from both sides.

It’s interesting that Trustee Katrina Young, a union ally on the board, was the only one to vote against hiring James-Ward last year. The district’s teachers union didn’t want her because she came from a charter school at San Diego Unified, and charters aren’t really keen on unions.

But see how things flipped? Young now is the only one to vote against placing her on administrative leave.

Allman has made it clear that he believes the teachers union has held sway over the district for far too long, financing elections to support candidates aligned with union goals and thereby controlling school board members.

So Allman became the union’s Public Enemy No. 1.

Once James-Ward and Allman began feuding, anyone who opposes Allman must be all right, according to union thinking. So now the union and its allies are rallying behind James-Ward.

It’s come down to politics as usual at San Dieguito, where polarity rules and middle ground does not exist.

A pickle

Interestingly, Trustee Julie Bronstein generally aligns with the teachers union but represents a sub-district that is heavily Asian American. And the Asian American community wants James-Ward fired. They’ve been very vocal about this.

Bronstein, whose term is up this November, is in a bit of a pickle. The question is: Who do you want to upset more — the teachers union that backs you or Asian American constituents whose votes you need?

Bronstein did vote to place James-Ward on leave, but — given the lack of progress on James-Ward’s fate in closed session — a reasonable assumption is that the board is now deadlocked 2-2 on the issue, which means that Bronstein may be siding with Young.

As James-Ward continues to be paid her salary while on leave, which is $24,000 per month, according to Interim Superintendent Tina Douglas, this situation hangs out there week after week, month after month, generating heightened anger and turmoil.

Perhaps James-Ward should be reinstated — although heaven knows why she would want to go back to that chaos.

The Board of Trustees will eventually need to come to some decision over this ugly situation: reinstate her and incur the wrath of the Asian American community and those who believe she has done irreparable harm, or fire her and incur the wrath of the union, its supporters and foes of Allman.

The district’s attorney, Daniel Shinoff, said they are attempting to try mediation to resolve the affair. Perhaps that’s a third option, although movement seems slow.

But the board needs to do something and get on with the business of advancing student learning. This rancorous situation is untenable and cannot be maintained as is for much longer.

Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha[at]

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.

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