Parents voice accusations over Encinitas yoga classes
A June 7 Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) board meeting that started with a joyous retirement ceremony for 13 of the district’s elementary school teachers and four staff members, saw a dramatic shift in mood after the topic turned to the budget and an $800,000 allotment for controversial yoga classes. The classes are in the health and wellness part of the district’s enrichment wheel program.
Several parents, who spoke about the yoga classes during public comment, accused EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird of serious offenses such as fraud, collusion and knowingly presenting tainted research to justify the program.
The yoga program, which has expanded into a weekly fixture in EUSD schools since starting small in 2012, was previously funded by grants from the Encinitas nonprofit Sonima Foundation. The foundation has provided about $4 million for the yoga program, including $800,000 of funding this school year.
That funding has been discontinued, but Baird says the program is valuable.
The enrichment wheel program not only allows students a chance for specialty classes like yoga, but that in turn provides collaboration time for classroom teachers during those periods.
Baird has decided that the yoga program should continue to be funded next year, with health and wellness money being built into the 2016-17 budget. The first public draft of that budget was presented at the June 7 meeting and the final budget will be voted on by the school board at its June 24 meeting.
“The (teacher) collaboration time is very important and the health and wellness time is very important,” Baird told the Encinitas Advocate. “Survey data from parents, students and teachers show strong support for this program, including a survey that was done this year that 75 percent of people saw value in the program.
“More important than dollars, to teachers, is time. If teachers were not seeing benefits (in their time) from this program, they would be screaming. How many teachers did you hear (questioning this) tonight?”
The public comment consisted of six parents and Flora Vista fourth-grader Jake Saidy — who said he felt the money was too much to spend on yoga and suggested it be a voluntary after-school program — strongly disagreeing with the idea that the weekly yoga program is critical.
The speakers ranged from those saying that the district’s priorities were out of whack, to those who believe laws have been broken.
The parent group says that proponents of the study such as Baird, use a 2012-13 study to justify the program. This study, conducted by the University of San Diego’s Center for Education and Policy Law (CEPAL), compared Encinitas students that had participated in a full year of the yoga program and those that had had it for only half of the year.
Parent Greg Robin detailed what he called a conflict of interest as he explained that Scott Himelstein, the center director at CEPAL, was also on the advisory board of the Sonima Foundation. (Himelstein is no longer listed on the Sonima website). Robin reminded listeners that Baird is on that same advisory board.
Robin also read from what he called “the actual findings of the research” on yoga in schools saying “the CEPAL study failed to support the hypothesis that all-year yoga students would perform better than half-year yoga students in measures of fitness, behavior, attendance, academic performance or emotional well-being.”
Robin added that he had found evidence of payment to Himelstein of “almost $500,000 … for biased research” by the Sonima Foundation, which was founded by Encinitas businessman Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia Jones.
“This isn’t about yoga, this is about a billionaire couple, basically directing school policy in our district,” said Robin, who went on to accuse Baird of misrepresenting the results of the study to expand the EUSD program.
Anna Hysell, a lawyer and a mother of children in the district, took it a step further. Hysell said she has launched an investigation into Baird and the Encinitas school board “and what we have found is completely illegal.” She accused Baird of colluding with Himelstein and the Sonima Foundation to falsify research about the yoga program.
She urged the board and those in the audience to visit a website where she has compiled her evidence at www.encinitasparents4truth.com. The district has information about its budget and specifically the Health and Wellness program at ww2.eusd.net.
Hysell said Baird is committing fraud and is subject to prosecution. She went on to say that she plans to hand over her evidence to the U.S Dept. of Education’s Office of Inspector General and California Audits and Investigation Unit, and that she has already notified the San Diego District Attorney.
Baird said that the group’s information is not correct.
“There were many things that were incorrectly said (during public comment), and I will address those that are appropriate,” Baird said. “There’s been a lot made about me being on an advisory board. It was an unpaid position and all it meant was, I’m a superintendent in a district where they first implemented this program and they asked me once a year to tell their real board what were the effects of this program in our district, what I was seeing and did I want funding to continue the next year. I made a 10-to-15-minute report to their board once a year, and that lists me as an advisor. That was my job as the superintendent.
“Beyond that, this has been a good program for our district. It would be negligent of me as superintendent to say ‘let’s throw away a good program’ just because someone else was paying for it and now we have to try to figure out how to (pay for it ourselves).
“But I know the board has to look at budget priorities, and that’s a difficult responsibility.”
Interestingly, following the emotionally-charged public comment that featured loud reactions from the more than 50 concerned parents and community members in the audience, the board turned to a more broad-ranging discussion of how to best get input from their parents, teachers and students when Leighangela Brady presented the first reading of the Local Control Accountability plan.
With just a few people left in the audience, Brady, the Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, talked about the process for getting feedback from parents, students and teachers. She also detailed changes to programs, plans and allocations of funds that the district planned to make thanks to that input.
When the conversation touched on Health and Wellness, Brady and several of the board members reiterated the value of the teacher collaboration time provided by the enrichment wheel classes, including yoga.