Veteran educator Cheryl James-Ward is expected to be hired Thursday as San Dieguito Union High School District superintendent.
Veteran educator Cheryl James-Ward is expected to be hired Thursday as San Dieguito Union High School District superintendent. Image via district

Update: Citing a flood of comments, the school board voted 4-0 Tuesday to pull the agenda item on banning critical race theory teaching. No date was set for consideration of the subject.

The San Dieguito Union High School District could be the first in the county to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in its schools.

On the same school board agenda that formally hires a Black woman as new superintendent, Thursday night’s virtual meeting will consider revising Board Policy 6144 on “controversial issues.”

CRT FAQ by California School Boards Association (PDF)

“Instruction shall not teach or include Critical Race Theory as part of the curriculum, instruction or educational materials,” says a proposed addition to a policy adopted in September 2019.

The change — part of agenda item 10f — adds that “Critical Race Theory is not required by the State Board of Education as part of any of its content standards or framework.”

District staff, under interim Superintendent Lucile Lynch, has recommended that the four-member board adopt the new language.

On Sept. 30, minutes say, board President Maureen “Mo” Muir directed Lynch to bring back a board policy for consideration that “these target points for DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] are the district’s goals and that Critical Race Theory will not be part of our teaching or in the district curriculum.”

A new flashpoint for conservative critics of public education, the once-obscure academic area has led to calls to ban such teaching, including in the San Diego Unified, Solana Beach, Coronado and Poway school districts.

The Ramona Unified school board is considering its own “controversial issues” policy, but not one that singles out critical race theory.

According to a six-page FAQ prepared by the California School Boards Association, CRT as it’s abbreviated is a “practice of interrogating race and racism in society and the ways in which it impacts people.”

The July 2021 discussion adds: “CRT emphasizes race as a social construct (a classification system developed by society that can change over time, rather than fixed biological categories) with social significance, not a biological reality.

“It acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions that replicate racial inequality — codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy.”

Developed by a Harvard Law School professor in the mid-1970s and refined by other legal scholars, CRT “has since spread to other fields, as it is closer to a method of analysis than a fixed academic subject, and thus evolves along with the society it critiques.”

San Dieguito’s existing policy already specifies that “instruction shall not reflect adversely upon persons because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, religion or any other basis prohibited by law.”

Some opponents of CRT allege that such studies advocate discriminating against White people in order to achieve equity.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk wrote how the conservative Heritage Foundation recently blamed many issues on CRT, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and California’s ethnic studies model curriculum.

“When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,” the organization is quoted as saying.

But Wednesday afternoon, a leader of Encinitas4Equality Equity in Education Group wrote school trustees and other officials, demanding that the CRT agenda item be removed.

Katherine Stenger, a White woman “enraged by this board’s behavior,” called the revision “absurd, divisive and antithetical to the spirit of academic inquiry espoused by SDUHSD.”

She said it contradicts the 13,000-student North County school district’s policies on equity and curriculum development.

“It is clear that this is mere far-right dog whistling and part of a plan to foster division and chaos in our district,” she wrote.

“Rather than waste time on misinformed actions that ironically prove the very structural racism Critical Race Theory advances, board trustees should be discussing actions that would ensure that our current policies are being upheld and that our teachers and students are prepared and supported to confront racism as it continues to manifest in our curriculum and in the lives of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other marginalized students.”

Instead, she wrote, the school board should begin making plans to put into effect the ethnic studies requirement recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, “so that our schools can lead in providing diverse and dynamic learning for our students.”

In another letter to the school board, Sheila Mitra-Sarkar of Encinitas decried the proposal as a “slippery slope towards mainstream White supremacy.”

“You just made us aware that [people of color] should stay at the back of the SDUHSD bus in decision making,” she wrote. “You will also harm and place the extra burden and needless harassment on teachers by White supremacists.”

Mitra-Sarkar backs the student-led Diversify Our Narrative movement.

She asked the board: “Will you censor debates, school news articles, Black Student Unions (La Costa Canyon), Asian Student Unions? … Would discussion on significance of Indigenous [Peoples’] Day be disallowed because the teachers are not uplifting Columbus?”

James-Ward “lone finalist” for superintendent

School district release on Cheryl James-Ward selection. (PDF)

The school board also will consider a staff recommendation to approve a 44-month contract with Carmel Valley resident Cheryl James-Ward, 58, as Lynch’s successor as superintendent of schools.

Her annual salary would be $288,000 with a $10,000 auto allowance and 24 paid vacation days a year. But the deal offers no health benefits.

James-Ward — CEO and Chief Engagement & Innovation Officer of e3 Civic High School in downtown San Diego — was announced Sunday as the school board’s “lone finalist” for the district’s top job.

Her selection was the result of a nationwide search led by Texas-based JG Consulting not to exceed $25,000. It drew 17 applicants, the district said.

Before joining e3 Civic High, James-Ward was a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineer and a tenured professor at San Diego State University. She also was a principal in the Long Beach Unified School District after serving as a principal at Capri Elementary in Encinitas.

In November 2018, James-Ward finished 2 percentage points behind Kristin Gibson for the Trustee Area 5 seat on the San Dieguito school board. Gibson resigned in March, paving the way (after a provisional appointment was voided) for a new school board election in November.

Earlier that year, she also ran for the District 5 seat on the San Diego County Board of Education, losing to Rich Shea by 3.4 percentage points.

The mother of two is married to Randy Ward, who in 2016 was replaced as county schools superintendent after a taxpayer lawsuit alleged that he and his chief financial officer had given themselves illegal raises.

Two years later, the case was dismissed two days before a Superior Court civil jury trial when the San Diego County Office of Education settled the case and agreed to pay California Taxpayers Action Network $62,500.

“Dr. Ward never did anything wrong and the fact that this case was settled for less than nuisance value two years later confirms this,” said Barrett Green, Ward’s personal attorney, in a statement to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The county office paid an outside law firm more than $70,000 to conduct a forensic audit related to Ward’s tenure.

James-Ward told the U-T that the county education office’s decision to not release a law firm’s forensic audit of the claims proved her husband’s innocence.

“If they had found something, you know they would have released it. They would have gladly released it,” James-Ward said. “They looked under every rock, every cranny, every nook and they found nothing.”

Updated at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14, 2021