San Dieguito Union High School Board Trustee Michael Allman told the superintendent to fire district employees in a series of profanity-laced text messages revealed during a school board meeting Thursday.
The text messages were read during the contentious and at times chaotic meeting, where audience members interrupted and shouted at each other several times as they disagreed over whether to keep or fire Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward, who was recently placed on leave after making controversial comments about Asian students.
Thursday’s meeting was the latest burst of infighting in San Dieguito Union High School District, which has been fraught with leadership turnover and political division for the past two years. The board discussed James-Ward’s employment during closed session but did not take any vote.
During a diversity and equity board workshop last month, James-Ward attributed the academic success of Asian students to an influx of wealthy immigrants from China. Her comments outraged Asian parents and community members who noted that not all Asians are Chinese or wealthy and who argued that Asians are successful because of their merit and hard work.
Three board members, including Allman, voted last month to place James-Ward on leave for her comments. Only one trustee, Katrina Young, voted against placing her on leave.
James-Ward has apologized for her comments but said the backlash for her comments is actually retaliation for a harassment complaint she filed in February against Allman. She has said in TV interviews that she has been “publicly lynched,” and she threatened litigation against the district if the board ends up firing her.
Several Asian community members who would not accept James-Ward’s apology have demanded that James-Ward be fired.
Her critics said she was not placed on leave as retaliation for her complaint against Allman. They noted that two trustees other than Allman also voted to place James-Ward on leave.
“What she said was factually flawed, culturally ignorant and racially biased,” said Allison Luo, a parent of two students in the district, during public comment Thursday. “Her apology was nothing but deflection of blame and was not genuine.”
Other community members said the persecution of James-Ward has been excessive. They noted she is the district’s first Black superintendent and she has advocated for diversity, equity and inclusion.
The backlash against James-Ward has prompted a movement among some community members calling for Allman to resign for what they say has been harassing behavior and language.
Mali Woods-Drake, co-founder of local diversity and equity group Encinitas 4 Equality, read aloud the text messages during public comment. Woods-Drake alleged Allman is retaliating against James-Ward for whistleblowing about what he said in the texts.
Woods-Drake later told the Union-Tribune that she received screenshots of the texts from James-Ward. James-Ward confirmed to the Union-Tribune the veracity of the texts, which she said were exchanged between herself and Allman last winter.
James-Ward said the texts were a “small part” of the complaint that she filed against Allman. She declined to elaborate on the rest of her complaint.
In a statement to the Union-Tribune, Allman said: “All communications I have had with Dr. Ward are being investigated by an independent investigator. I look forward to being fully exonerated at the completion of the investigation.”
The text exchange was about a La Costa Canyon High teacher who allegedly “dinged” a student because that person’s mask was slipping, according to Allman.
“This has to end Cheryl,” Allman wrote to her, according to the screenshots of the text exchange. “You simply ORDER the teacher to correct it and to stop it. If you can’t do it Cheryl, with all due respect, I will!”
“Actually you cannot, unless you want a grievance. The principal can,” the superintendent responded.
James-Ward said she would have the principal, Reno Medina, and an assistant superintendent meet with the teacher.
Allman responded: “I really don’t give a (expletive) about a grievance Cheryl.”
James-Ward asked Allman to calm down, and Allman said he was too angry to talk. He apologized and said he is “super, super pissed off” and that he would try to calm down. James-Ward responded, “No worries.”
Allman later texted her, “Who (expletive) up?”
When James-Ward said a formal complaint should be written, Allman refused.
“That’s how we solve the problem,” James-Ward wrote.
“NO,” Allman wrote back. “Sorry, but no.”
Later Allman wrote: “I will out this SOB. End of story. This is insubordination. Does he not know, or does he know and ignore? If he does not know, fire Medina. If he know (sic) and ignores, fire the teacher.”
Weeks after the text exchange, in March, the district announced that Medina will be reassigned from La Costa Canyon High to Earl Warren Middle School next school year.
After Woods-Drake finished reading the texts aloud, she said: “Is this the behavior we want of people that are responsible for the well-being of our students? Do we want someone to say, ‘Fire our principals and our teachers,’ because they are upholding a mask mandate in January of a COVID surge?”
She pointed at Allman and said, “You should be let go.”
The board room erupted with booing and shouts of “No!” from some people in the meeting and shouts of “Retaliation!” from others.