Jeff Clemetson | Editor
School board controversies also raised at meeting
With a unanimous vote on May 15, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District (LMSVSD) board accepted a contract to appoint David Feliciano the district’s new superintendent.
Feliciano will replace superintendent Brian Marshall who is retiring at the end of the year, after serving the district for 14 years. Feliciano has served as LMSVSD assistant superintendent of business for three years and has worked in education for over 16.
“I believe the service of education, the nurturing work we do in our schools every day, is the highest calling there is,” he said in an email interview. Feliciano also stated that his highest priority as superintendent will be to ensure that “children are at the center of every decision [the board and his office makes] in all areas of the district.”
Feliciana said that the biggest challenge facing the district is dealing with diminished state funding, which he explained impacts districts in a variety of ways including poor student-to-teacher ratios, lowered support staff at schools, campus safety and inadequate school facilities.
“As is the case for most school districts in California, funding is one of our most pressing challenges,” he said. “Compared to the nation, California ranks near the bottom in per-pupil funding, pupil-teacher ratios and the percentage of taxable income spent on public education.”
One area that Feliciano sees room for improvement in the district is communication and community outreach.
“I’d like to reach our community on a broader level to share the exciting work we are doing in our schools,” he said. “I plan to focus my immediate attention on expanding our presence online, on social media, and other relevant forms of community engagement.”
Normally, a new superintendent would be the main event of a school board meeting; however, at the May 15 meeting where Feliciano’s contract was approved, it was the communication and community engagement of School Board President David Chong that took center stage.
A handful of community members as well as current and former teachers came to the meeting to speak out against recent comments made by Chong about students from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, where 17 were killed in a school shooting on Feb. 14.
“We have half of our lawmakers taking firearms policy advice from kids who were eating Tide Pods just last week,” Chong said in a video posted to his Facebook page. Chong owns a gun store in El Cajon and students from Stoneman Douglas have been active in pressuring lawmakers to pass more stringent rules on owning firearms in the wake of the shooting at their high school.
“There is no connection between any mass shooting survivors from any high school and the consumption of Tide Pods” said Christina Benjamin, who is a teacher in the LMSV school district. Benjamin said she teaches figurative language and that Chong’s statement was not hyperbole, but rather “an inaccurate connection of two completely different events in our nation used to promote a particular political agenda.”
Fletcher Hills resident and former Naval officer told the board that he is not anti-gun but that he felt compelled to speak out because he is “protective” of teachers and students in the district.
“[Chong’s] disturbing rhetoric and lack of remorse serve no one — not our children, our teachers, our community or you,” he said.
Another recent comment on guns made by Chong stating that a cause of the Holocaust was that Jews were disarmed, also drew ire from some of the speakers.
“That statement about the Holocaust has been completely rebuked by the Anti-Defamation League and is quite offensive to those whose families perished in the Holocaust, such as mine,” said La Mesa resident Emily Green, who added that because of Chong’s comments she will not be sending her children to Lemon Avenue Elementary despite living just a few blocks away. She asked the board to censure Chong for his statements.
In addition to criticizing Chong’s comments on the Parkland students, former LMSVSD teacher Ron Sanders also criticized the board’s recent appointment of Rebekah Basson as temporary board member, finishing the term of Rick Winet who resigned in June of last year. Basson was a controversial pick for the board because she had no formal teaching experience, never worked in the district and had only attended public schools for two years, receiving the majority of her education at private Christian schools. Several experienced educators were passed over to give Basson the temporary position in what was widely viewed as a partisan decision.
“This seat will be chosen by the voters in November. Would it not have made more sense to appoint someone who does not have to [be] brought up to date on how the district works and then let the voters make their choice for the November ballot?” asked Sanders. “It appears to me that this board has been listening to their conservative, religious, and political agendas rather than listening to the needs of the students, teachers, and parents.”
At the conclusion of the May 15 meeting, Chong defended his comments and assured the board that he has a majority of public support.
“I just wanted to ensure the board that I am listening and I am paying attention and what I’m seeing is an overwhelming message of encouragement and support from the public at a ratio of about 10 to one. I regret that some members of our public are discouraged or angry or feel that the work of our board is diminished,” he said. “I have full and complete confidence in the work that we’re doing. Thank you for weathering the storm and we’ll continue on.”
Outgoing superintendent Brian Marshall also reminded the board that they cannot take any action against Chong.
“The board has no collective authority to remove any elected board member form the board,” he said. “The only group that can do that would be the community [in the upcoming election].”
Marshall also thanked the board for selecting Feliciana to replace him and promised a smooth transition.
“David and I are already coordinating and working, and with this next step, will go out and start looking for a new assistant superintendent of business services who will get on board sometime late summer,” Marshall said.
Despite the recent controversies surrounding the LMSVSD board, Feliciano said it will not distract the district from its mission to educate its roughly 12,300 students.
“Our staff is focused on forming and nurturing these children,” he said. “This work of education, day in and day out, transcends ideology.”
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.