Report finds no evidence of ‘pay to play’ at Torrey Pines

The San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) recently completed its response to allegations that the Torrey Pines High School (TPHS) baseball team was in violation of district policies and state law. After an independent investigation by the Sobel Group, the district sent a response to the complainant Wendy Gumb that outlined there was no “pay to play” culture in the baseball program but there were instances where district policies were not followed.

“The report speaks for itself,” said TPHS Coach Kirk McCaskill. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘vindicated’ because I don’t feel like we did anything wrong. This process has been very frustrating from our perspective.”

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” McCaskill continued. “I can tell you this: pay for play has never been in existence, it’s just not how we operate. I don’t know who donates nor do I care.”

Gumb’s complaint alleged that the district improperly charged students to participate in athletics, what she believes to be a violation of the Free School Guarantee. Gumb included as evidence a February email from the Torrey Pines High School Foundation baseball liaison that said “please bring your checkbooks,” asking for a minimum of $695 to help cover the $85,000 cost to run the baseball program.

Based on the findings, the district did not deny students participation in the TPHS baseball program nor did it provide them with special treatment based on whether they provided donations to the TPHS Foundation, engaged in fundraising activities held by the foundation or participated in fee-based club programs run by the foundation.

“We are pleased that the independent investigation findings confirm what we knew to be the facts. The evidence supports that students who have not donated received equal opportunities as those that did,” said TPHS Foundation Executive Director Nicole Baril. “Hopefully this brings clarity to the community that the misinformation communicated in the media was misleading and had no merit.”

Gumb is not in agreement with the findings and has appealed to the California Department of Education. Gumb has also requested further clarification and investigation into several issues in her complaint.

“We are not done with the district, they need to be held accountable for what transpires on their campuses. They can’t continue to blame the foundation,” Gumb said. “The foundation is made up of good parents that are just trying to give their students the best possible education. It is not their fault when the school district is in collusion with private people to mislead the public.”

Among the findings of the report, there was evidence that coaching vacancies have not been internally or externally advertised for the past three school years, however, all coaches hired did go through the district’s regular interview and hiring selection process. SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill said the district will take corrective measures to ensure that all school site coaching vacancies are advertised as required.

There was also evidence that one of the TPHS coaches charged for private lessons at school facilities on non-school hours without submitting a facilities use permit. The district will take corrective action with that employee.

In addition, the report said there was evidence of pre-enrollment contact with students as part of their involvement with a club baseball team and the necessary disclosure forms were not filled out.

Gumb said everything started in October 2016 when she began asking “very discreetly” about the use of the school batting cages by travel ball teams, who seemed to have access on a regular basis and she wanted to know if they had acquired the necessary facilities use permits.

“It kind of unraveled from there,” Gumb said.

She said she began doing her own due diligence research discovering it appeared the batting cages had never been approved by the board or the Division of State Architects (DSA) and that it didn’t seem as though coach hiring processes were followed. She said she also had a lot of questions about the role of the foundation in school athletics.

Gumb said she decided to submit her complaint to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) as she felt her questions were being dismissed by the district. Over the holiday break she submitted a 16-page complaint backed by over 500 documents to CIF. CIF submitted it to the district anonymously but Gumb said she was “outed” by district staff.

She said once the baseball coach found out it was her, her son was “blackballed.” She describes her son as a “16-year-old kid who loves baseball — baseball is the reason he comes to school.” She said the response to him has been fairly negative but she knows her son is a strong kid that can handle it.

“I don’t believe in handouts and I constantly tell my son he has to work for what he earns,” Gumb said. “I cannot write a $10,000 check to pay for special privileges. I don’t think anyone in a public school should have to.”

After her complaint was filed, baseball tryouts were held on Feb. 21. Her son did not make the roster, one of only three cuts the team made, all of them from the class of 2018.

The investigation found no evidence that the foundation informs coaches which students donated and in what amounts. The report found that three to seven students per year do not donate.

“There is no evidence that failing to donate to the foundation has had any effect on any of these students’ participation in the TPHS baseball program,” the report said.

Gumb countered that if the district cross-referenced those players, they would see that they are paying fees to participate on Del Mar Powerhouse or Solana Beach Cardinals, teams that TPHS coaches are affiliated with.

While there was no evidence of “pay for play,” Dill said that that the foundation’s requests for donations could have more clearly informed parents that their decision to donate or not donate would not affect their ability to effectively participate in the program.

At the June 22 board meeting, Torrey Pines golf coach Matt Chess, the baseball coach prior to McCaskill, spoke on his behalf.

“My friend Kirk McCaskill loves his kids first and second, never wanted to lose a game,” Chess said.

In an interview, McCaskill said he made every attempt to “stay above the fray” as the investigation continued during the team’s season, although it was difficult. He said at one game against La Costa Canyon, he was even heckled. “I try not to respond.”

Gumb’s son was a student in his baseball PE class and McCaskill said he did his best to “protect him and to protect the players on the team.”

“We’re doing the best we can as coaches,” McCaskill said. “I’m proud of what we have at Torrey Pines, both the success that our players had on the field and in the classroom. I’m very proud of the work our coaches put in, we do a really good job as a group and set high standards both academically and athletically.”

Two Torrey Pines players earned scholarships to Ivy League schools and two players were drafted by Major League Baseball — pitcher Kyle Hurt was drafted by the Phillies in the 34th round although he is headed to USC and Jacob Boone, a potential fourth generation MLB player, was drafted by the Nationals in the 38th round but is attending Princeton.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more for our student athletes,” McCaskill said.

Torrey Pines batting cages never approved

Gumb’s complaint regarding the batting cages has proved to be the most illuminating to the district —many of the board members were not even aware they existed. The cages were installed in 2013 as a result of a $400,000 donation from a parent.

Per the report, at the time district staff assigned to oversee the project determined that the project was exempt from Division of State Architect (DSA) review as it was a “fencing project.” As a result of Gumb’s complaint, DSA evaluated the project and determined that, under current regulations, the district would need to apply for approval.

SDUHSD has since submitted the batting cage’s plans to the DSA — they were approved in February of this year.

At the June 22 board meeting, parent Beth Westburg said she has nothing against the batting cages and is glad that the school has them but she wanted the district to be held responsible for not following the rules.

Westburg said she couldn’t believe that the board was unaware of the $400,000 batting cages installed on campus or that no one questioned their existence or who had paid for them when rumors trickled out that students were being kicked out of the cages by club team coaches or being used by minor league baseball players during school hours.

“This leaves me wondering, is the district aware of what’s happening on their own campuses? I have to ask myself, what else is being hidden from the public? What other deals have been made in the backroom?” Westburg asked. “This is past sloppy.”

Dill said at the time the batting cage donation idea was presented, he worked with then-Torrey Pines Principal David Jaffe. The cages went through the facilities planning department and the construction department but it was never presented as a donation item for the board to approve.

“We didn’t present it formally as a donation as we should have and that is something that we have admitted we did not do correctly,” Dill said.

Dill said at the July meeting, the cages will be on the agenda to accept.

According to Baril, local youth teams have usage of the cages averaging 200 hours per year, bringing in approximately $25,000 a year to the foundation.

The report found some of the uses appear related to an agreement between the foundation and the community member who provided the funding. Dill said the district will take appropriate corrective actions to ensure that all future facilities uses are in accordance with board policy. The district will also review whether any entities should have been charged for their use of Torrey Pines facilities, whether or not those activities were sponsored by the foundation.

Gumb was disappointed that the investigation did not address her complaints about coaching responsibilities and about the “biased culture” and reports of players from previous seasons facing similar behavior.

“The district’s silence on this topic leads me to the conclusion that they agree that there was a hostile environment on school grounds that impaired the access of pupils to an equal educational opportunity,” Gumb said.

She said she will continue to seek answers on the lack of transparency in the foundation and would like to see the investigation fully completed.