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Panel Urged to Unite to Settle Magnet School Rift

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Times Staff Writer

The black parents sat in one section of the city school district’s chambers Tuesday and told Board of Education members that the serious morale problems threatening Gompers Secondary School in Southeast San Diego are not the fault of Principal Marie Thornton, who is black.

The white parents sat in another section of the room and told the board that Thornton’s management style is the major reason for 40% of the teachers wanting to leave the city’s stellar math-science-computer magnet program and for the parents thinking of pulling their children out of the special integration program.

For more than an hour, the furious debate over what is wrong at Gompers and who is responsible raged before the five-member board, which earlier had met in closed session and reaffirmed Supt. Tom Payzant’s public statement last week that he will not remove Thornton because she is not at the root of the school’s troubles.

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After more than 2 dozen speakers voiced their opinions, board President Dorothy Smith asked everyone in the room to work together on a special parents committee to meet next week to try to solve the problem.

But board members said afterward that they realize such a request for cooperation is a tall order for the school, where high-powered white students are bused into an integrated seventh-through-12th-grade science magnet at the same time students from an almost all-minority inner-city junior high struggle to master basic skills on the same campus.

“I view it as a serious situation but one that can be solved at the site level,” member Jim Roache said of demands by white parents that the board step in immediately and remove Thornton, who they feel will lose dedicated magnet teachers by forcing them to teach in the junior high as well.

“It would be ill-advised for the board to step in with an autocratic decision to hurriedly resolve issues that may not need that hurry.”

Board member Susan Davis has a ninth-grade son in the Gompers magnet.

“I am worried and I talk to both sides,” she said.

Can the special committee solve the problem? “I’m not sure, but we have to give it a try,” she replied, suggesting that clear guidelines and standards be set up that all parties to the dispute--teachers, parents and the board--would have to follow.

“I think a lot is salvageable,” Davis said, “that most parents and teachers are willing to stay and work things out.”

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Member John Witt said that, although the situation is “volatile,” he does not believe the board risks destroying the magnet in the next month or so by letting the committee process run its course.

Board President Smith said the process has the support of a “vast majority” of the board, making her comment pointedly within earshot of member Kay Davis as she left the meeting. Kay Davis, no relation to Susan Davis, declined comment, although it is known that she and Smith disagree on the cause of the problem at Gompers.

Emotionally drained members of the audience left with different impressions, but they promised to be at next Monday’s first committee meeting.

“This magnet fails to be responsive to black kids, and the black community can’t remain silent any longer,” Maisha Kudumu said to applause and cheers of the black parents in supporting Thornton’s controversial action to require all teachers to have magnet and non-magnet students.

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