By Maya Srikrishnan, Voice of San Diego
Iftin Charter School has gotten itself into a huge, expensive mess.
Earlier this year, multiple employees filed complaints against the City Heights school over discrimination and retaliation.
In June, the school received a scathing reportafter a San Diego Unified investigation, sparked by a raft of parent concerns over the departures of school leaders.
The investigation found the school failed to comply with special education laws or provide certain special education services and that it failed to enroll homeless and foster youth and students with disabilities. It raised concerns that nepotism drove certain staffing decisions, and that the school used improper hiring practices.
“I’m very sorry for the school,” said Yasin Essa, a former school board member who the board majority voted off the board amid the turmoil earlier this year. “The funds of the school are being spent on legal fees, attorney fees, hiring someone expensive and denying the kids what they were entitled to. It’s really important to the students to get a good education. That’s how you succeed in the USA.”
San Diego Unified is also withholding funds from the school for much-needed renovations, until the school can show it’s addressed all the issues. The school board majority voted out one of its members, drove another to resign and even has experienced vocal clashes among current members.
Iftin administration and board leadership adamantly deny the accusations from former employees and findings from the district’s investigation. But amid the complaints, investigations and parental outrage this year, it’s hired an attorney from Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch, and a high-profile education consultant in David Sciarretta, who founded the successful Albert Einstein Academy charter school.
The school, which has a roughly $4.7 million budget, spent nearly $80,000 in legal fees to Procopio between February and the end of June to cover itself in response to the numerous complaints, according to the school’s check registries.
Where Trouble Started
A group of parents, mostly refugees from war-torn Somalia, founded Iftin in 2006. The name means enlightenment in Somali.
The school caters to the continuous influx of refugees into the City Heights area. More than 95 percent of the school’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch – a measure often used to describe a school’s poverty level. Roughly 83 percent of the students are English-learners, according to the school administration.
The school has been long plagued with low test scores and poor finances. It named a new principal, Amal Hersi, roughly two years ago, to turn things around and keep its doors open.
Under Hersi, test scores in English and math went up. The school pulled itself out of debt and by 2017 had a budget surplus.
But over the next few months, the school erupted.
Hersi clashed with the board, and parents and the board ended up at odds with one another.
The school board voted to suspend Hersi – shocking parents, many employees and even some board members.
Hersi’s problems started in February. She and Sandra Martinez, a consultant hired to help train and evaluate teachers, gave a negative evaluation to Joe Udall, a teacher who also sits on Iftin’s board.
In late February, Hersi discovered Udall took students on a field trip without her permission. She suspended him for 10 days without pay.
The day after Hersi suspended Udall, the board held a meeting and punished the principal – putting her on paid leave after a negative evaluation in closed session.
The board then tried to revoke Martinez’s ability to evaluate teachers. Martinez, who was a consultant on the verge of retirement, resigned. Udall’s suspension never went into effect.
“It was a conflict of interest with a capital ‘C’,” said Martinez.
At another special meeting in May, the board voted to terminate Hersi in closed session. According to meeting minutes, Udall abstained from voting. The board then appointed Jama Yacub, the school’s data analyst and math resource teacher, to acting principal at a salary of $100,000 – $20,000 more than what Hersi earned as principal.
Hersi and Martinez have both registered complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the school for gender discrimination, among other issues. They’re not the only ones.
At least three other former and current staff members have registered complaints against the school for retaliation. They say they were bullied or threatened by the interim principal or school board leadership.
Parents Walk Out
“There are too many wrong things going on in that school last year,” said Mohamed Yusuf, who decided to take his children out of Iftin after the last school year.
Yusuf led a group of parents advocating for changes at the school after Hersi and Martinez left. Yusuf and other parents went to the San Diego Unified District, asking for an investigation into the charter. They called the California Charter School Association for help. They showed up to speak at board meeting after board meeting in the spring.
The school even had to hire security after unrest began at school and during board meetings after the shift in leadership, according to the school’s check registries.
“The board, they are the ones who caused that problem,” Yusuf said. “The school was going smoothly. The staff was going smoothly, the education was improving. Parents were happy at that time. But the board, they started looking for interests for them. So they started making discrimination, humiliation and power abuse.”
Yusuf said after raising concerns numerous times, he was told by school leadership that if he has a problem, he can take his kids elsewhere. They started school in Lemon Grove this academic year.
“I’m not afraid for myself, but I’m scared for my children,” Yusuf said. “These people don’t like me, what will they do my family? That’s why we decided to go to another school.”
After Yacub’s appointment as interim principal, allegations emerged that the school was not enrolling and providing adequate services to disabled students and homeless and foster youth. San Diego Unified highlighted three cases specifically at the school in its investigation. The school denies that it refused enrollment to the children in all of these instances.
But even the school’s instructional leader, Dawna Halama outlined potential concerns about the service provided to needy students at a June board meeting.
In a board report on special education, Halama laid out concerns that students in the school with and without disabilities are not getting the academic and behavioral support they need.
“There have been several instances where services were decreased or eliminated without going through the appropriate processes and without parent consent,” reads Halama’s report.
While the school denies all the district’s findings and the complaints against it, school leaders did decide to update the school’s policies and procedures after the accusations were raised against it.
Roy Monge, the school’s business manager, said at a board meeting last week that the school’s special education policy was woefully out of date, for example. It didn’t meet basic requirements, like stipulating that students with disabilities receive school-funded transportation, Monge said.
Similarly, the school updated its hiring and employment policies after the district found nepotism may have played a role in filling positions at the school, and that school leadership engaged in other improper hiring practices. The investigation doesn’t detail any instances related to either charge.
In its written response to Voice of San Diego questions, the school said nepotism concerns were about appearance, not reality.
“[Iftin Charter School] has employed individuals who are related by blood or marriage. While that is not illegal or uncommon, [Iftin charter School] understands that it may, at times, create concerns over perception … the [Iftin Charter School] Board has adopted an anti-nepotism policy to prevent future concerns,” read the school’s letter.
It also denied the accusations of improper hiring, saying only two of the more than 14 employees hired since March 2017 were hired by the acting principal without having to go through an interview committee.
Nancy Frantz had been working at Iftin since the school’s inception more than 10 years ago. She resigned in the spring amid the chaos.
“It’s difficult for me to write this letter but under the circumstances I have no choice,” wrote Frantz in her resignation letter to the acting principal and board. “The events that were set in motion when you voted to remove our Principal, Amal Hersi, and greatly restrict the role of Sandra Martinez, set in motion a series of events which now threatens the very existence of Iftin Charter School. … For ten years I’ve helped to build this school and it is devastating to see it so casually destroyed. I am sad beyond anything you can imagine about what has happened to our school in just a few short months.”
The school’s conflicts over the past several months has also shaken up its very own board, with one dissenting board member pushed out, another resigning and another who still sits on the board registering concerns over the actions of fellow members.
Essa was voted off the board in February after butting heads with other board members. After, he submitted two letters to the board outlining his concerns.
In his first letter, he said the school had suffered for two years under the leadership of Board President Abdulkarim Warsame. He said the school had been through “a change of Principal, division of the board into cronies and adversaries, backroom conversations, dealings, and compromises, gender-based discrimination against the principals, and BROWN ACT VIOLATIONS.”
In March, Essa followed with another letter. “We know that when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers and at Iftin it is the CHILDREN who will be adversely impacted emotionally, and educationally,” he wrote.
Another former board member Bile Ismail resigned in April. “I cannot watch few board members cripple the school because of their hidden agenda,” Ismail wrote in a letter to the board, parents and San Diego Unified.
Rahmo Abdi, who still sits on the board, also registered her concerns in writing to the district.
“Contrary to our obligations to lead the school and community forward, [some school board members] led by Abdulkarim Warsame have deviated from the interest of the students and have clearly showcased to the community that the concerns of the students and their parents are not important,” Abdi wrote.