High school foundation members defend themselves against accusations

San Dieguito Union High School District foundations united against recent accusations

The San Dieguito Union High School District board heard from a room full of passionate boosters of its four high school foundations at its Sept. 14 meeting, speaking out after months filled with accusations about fundraising operations and claims from what one parent said was a “negative minority who will always find a reason to be disgruntled.”

“I’m here to tell you that they don’t represent me,” said Kristy Laliotis, president of the Canyon Crest Academy Foundation, regarding statements made against the foundation by a pair of concerned parents. “We’re here for one reason and one reason only. We love our schools, we love the families and the foundations that the families represent. We are united and we stand together to tell the board this evening that we’re tired of the distractions and the accusations. We have work to do so let’s get to it.”

The board room was overcrowded with those who support the foundations, the organizations that seek voluntary donations to bridge the gap between student needs and state and district funding for the district’s high schools.

San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) Superintendent Eric Dill acknowledged that issues regarding the foundations have been raised over the last few months, but he couldn’t thank the parents enough for the opportunities that the foundation provides for all students.

“Our foundations are the envy of other school districts in the county; they wish they had the type of parent support we do,” Dill said. “It’s amazing. One of the reasons why I’ve stayed here for 16 years is because of what I see in this room and the relationships that we have with our parents.”

Perhaps the most ardent foundation supporters at the meeting were members of the Canyon Crest Academy Speech and Debate Team. Team president Kevin Li said before partnering with the CCA Foundation, they were being held back — the foundation helped streamline their club fundraising process which has allowed them to be a highly-competitive, nationally-recognized team, allowing every team member to travel to tournaments and to fund their coach Michael Orfield, a retired Superior Court judge. The foundation has also helped them with community service outreach in low-income neighborhoods and to put on a middle school summer camp, raising $8,600 for their program.

“Without foundations, clubs like ours wouldn’t be allowed to function how they are,” said senior Jennifer Tang.

Bob Zimmer, the chief financial officer for the San Dieguito High School Academy Foundation, said it has been hurtful to hear the “ridiculous” statements about the efforts of foundations, noting one comment equated a “heavy-handed” fundraising effort to the Spanish Inquisition. He said he is grateful for the positive experiences he’s had at SDA and he believes everything the foundation has done has been transparent and upstanding.

“The support of the foundation is not just monetary, I think the foundations across the district help to build community and you can’t put a dollar value on that,” Zimmer said.

Torrey Pines High School parent Beth Westburg said there has been a lot of misinformation in the community about her motives as she has been one of those parents asking questions about foundation operations.

“I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not my goal to shut down or close the foundations,” Westburg said. “I believe that foundations provide needed funds to school districts in order to improve the educational experience for their students.”

She thanked all foundation members for their time, money and hard work.

“My only request or ‘agenda’ is that all our institutions, including the district and the foundations, operate within the realm of purposefulness, integrity and the spirit and letter of the applicable laws and regulations that pertain to these entities,” Westburg said.

Wendy Gumb, who has filed complaints regarding the role of foundation fundraising on district athletics, also stressed she did not want to shut foundations down: “I believe in foundations,” she said. “I think they are a good opportunity to raise money, it just needs to be done in the right way.”

The board members all responded with enthusiastic thank yous for the district’s academic and athletic boosters, who enrich the student experience for all students. Trustee John Salazar said he doesn’t think anyone opposes the foundations, he just wants to ensure that they are following the law.

Dill said there have been questions regarding the district’s oversight of the foundations and Dill reiterated that the foundations are “school-connected organizations,” separate from the district. He said they operate independently but they do work with the district “side by side and hand in hand.” Dill said they communicate often — principals work closely with the boards and executive director and coaches work with parent liaisons as they set mutual goals about what they would like to fund and what the foundations are willing and able to support.

Each foundation has its own board and does its own decision-making — Dill said in his 16 years with the district he has given the foundations lots of advice but he has never made a decision for them.

Matt Weil, the vice president of administration on the CCA Foundation board, ran for his post and is charge of the governance committee making sure the board runs with integrity and with “appropriate” transparency.

“I can assure you there’s no pay to play in our case because my daughter doesn’t play anything,” Weil said. “We’re here for their broader good of the whole community.”

In response to complaints regarding some fundraising tactics, the district has held legal training with staff, foundation members and parents. Dill said they plan to replicate that legal training three times a year with the different sports seasons.

He acknowledged that mistakes have been made regarding “the ask” but he said that the intent of the training was to get everyone on the same page regarding donations so that the message to parents is always clear and consistent that donations are voluntary.

Heather Dugdale, the president of the Earl Warren Middle School Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) and a Torrey Pines High cheer and gymnastics booster, said the legal training was extremely helpful as a parent, donor and volunteer.

“Not one person I’ve met or spoken to has malicious or self-interested motives. It is important that you know all people come from a place of how to do best for our kids and our district,” Dugdale said. “We may have differences of opinion as to our ideas for the best approach but no one has come from a place of malice. I hope that after all this, all parties can come together.”