Taxpayers in the N-MUSD are facing the worst mismanagement since, well, I’ve lived here 30 years and cannot recall anything close to what we have been witnessing the past three years.

The Stephen Wagner embezzlement of about $3 million? A blip. That problem was solved immediately because the district knows that each year, taxpayer dollars will come pouring in regardless of how well the district performs on the accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility scales.

The Jeffrey Hubbard trial? Hah! His crimes occurred in another district so it doesn’t count here.

Today, we don’t have a blockbuster, headline-grabbing single issue with which to contend, we have an incredibly long string of smaller miscues, bad decision-making, waste, and mismanagement that highlight what happens when the N-MUSD trustees place too much faith in the people in charge and fail to challenge them when problems arise.

Until now. The issue is not one that many N-MUSD taxpayers are going to get riled up about because it concerns an academic program. If they don’t have kids, they won’t care very much, and even if they do, there is still an undeserved level of parental trust in the district that keeps parents from being upset about very much. Those parents drop their kids off at school and trust that the district knows what they’re doing.

Until now. Now, we are witnessing the details of a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars and district resources to support Swun Math, an elementary math program with which teachers had issues as long as three years ago. Unfortunately for the students, parents, and teachers who have to tough it out while the Swun replacement process grinds on, the time spent on this program is gone. The district will get their budget money as usual, but students and parents will never get back the time spent struggling with a math program that was identified by teachers early on as being riddled with errors, some of which remained even after teachers pointed them out.

The biggest losers in all this are the kids. We do not yet know how this math program has affected their ability to succeed through the typical math cycle, but they should be tracked to determine the full impact. Teaching math is a progression. Teachers start with the basics and build on that knowledge until kids – some of them, at least – have a better chance of understanding more complex math challenges. But if they don’t understand the early concepts, they will not understand the later ones.

Despite teacher outcries about the program dating back about three years ago, it took two brave and persistent parents to initiate change in the district. Erica and Jeff Roberts, Newport Beach residents who had to contend with the program at home, have spent months trying to get answers to the real problem, which is why Swun was adopted in the first place. They have appeared before countless board meetings to try to get the school board club to understand that they can’t nod their heads in agreement and wait for this one to blow over. Action was needed. Now.

Along the way, they guided and pushed an unwilling district toward a replacement program. They got the usual stifle, stall, and stymie, but as with John Caldecott, the trustees and the administration severely underestimated the Roberts’ tenacity. At the heart of this, for the Roberts, it is simply a matter of right vs. wrong.

There are so many layers to this issue, it is hard to know where to begin. They include, but are not limited to:

Wasted resources – An absurd amount of money has been spent to launch the program, fix it, and try to get it on track.

Morale – Imagine that you are part of a group of teachers who presented thoughtful, constructive criticism of the program, only to receive the equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.

Communication – In several instances, it is clear that the left hand of the district did not seem to know what the right hand was doing.

What should have happened is textbook management. It’s on page 122 of any management book anywhere. It states that if multiple employees – in this case, teachers – are complaining about the same thing, the first thing you do is gather as much reliable information as you can in as little time as possible. In the case of this math program that process would have taken about a day had it been conducted about three years ago when the complaints first started rolling in. After that brief query among teachers, those reporting back to the superintendent would have said, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The district did try to fix the program. They threw teachers and money at the problems to try to correct mistakes, but in many cases, they kept seeing the mistakes in the materials even after they pointed them out. Frustration mounted.

Enter the Roberts. They started asking questions, ones such as, “If the N-MUSD is spending local tax dollars to fix a for-profit math program, are our corrections being used in other districts where the program is being used? If so, shouldn’t we be further compensated further for our work?” “Why should the correction process cost us even a dime?” And more.

Their efforts attracted more parents, all of whom have been asking even more questions and demanding more action.

BTW, the replacement process costs money, too.

This math program is an example of what plagues the district. It’s a symptom. The real problem is leadership.

That’s the way it all adds up.

Steve Smith
Taxpayer, N-MUSD