Overhaul sought for Rio school board

El Rio residents unhappy with the current leadership, look to fall election

By David Michael Courtland 08/05/2010

November could bring a regime change of sorts to Rio School District’s board, with eight people running for four seats, including critics of Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell and the current board.

“I don’t feel like the current board is making the right decisions. I don’t feel like they’re putting any consequence to what the superintendent did,” said candidate Eleanor Torres, referring to Cotterell’s shoplifting conviction earlier this year.

“I think there needs to be a change. Everyone involved needs better leadership,” said Torres, who is particularly concerned about the example being set for children. “There needs to be stronger values and more integrity.”

For years, Rio School District’s board has seen one political feud after another unfold, with superintendents fired or resigning, and recall campaigns mounted against trustees.

Insult was added to injury in the past year with Cotterell’s shoplifting bust, followed by board member Brian Martin’s child molestation conviction.

Cotterell’s much-publicized arrest last year after being caught on security cameras cutting the tags off a pair of shoes at T.J. Maxx in Oxnard, drew calls from parents for her resignation.

Some were angered that the board took no action beyond accepting an apology from Cotterell, who was placed on probation with a suspended one-day jail sentence.

Meanwhile, a stalemate between the board and the Rio Teachers Association over district finances continues, with the board insisting it needs concessions from teachers to avoid $4.25 million in cost overruns by next spring.

If the board and teachers do not reach an agreement, the district faces the prospect of state receivership, with the California Department of Education assigning a management team to take over day-to-day operations until the district is solvent again.

“I think, with this current board and the superintendent, they aren’t able to communicate with labor and, specifically, the teachers union,” Torres said, adding that she has had supportive feedback from the community since announcing her candidacy.

Torres, who worked for the school district for 15 years before leaving to help run Torres Truck Parts in Oxnard, will be among those running against incumbents Ron Mosqueda and Robert Guillen.

Guillen, in contrast to Torres, says the board has placed schoolchildren first, pointing to improving test scores as proof. He says the board has worked hard to make capital improvements and wants to continue those efforts.

“That’s the main area; we’ve renovated the labs,” said Guillen, who points to the renovated building now being used for the district’s Student and Family Services Office. “I’m sure, as the years go on, we’ll continue to make physical improvements.”

Guillen, a production manager for an Oxnard manufacturer who coaches youth baseball, downplayed criticism of the board and said the community feedback he has gotten has been supportive.

“There’s always critics — those critics weren’t there when we opened up those labs, so what are they critical of?” Guillen asked. “It’s easy to be critical, but do they ask whether we’ve done these other things? You’ve got to go both ways.”

Guillen, who said he has gotten positive comments from the community for his work on the board, said the district’s financial situation was no different from many others.

“We’re in the same mess as every district in the state,” he said. “Of course I’d like to be in a better situation, but it is what it is.”

Others running for the three at-large seats include newcomers Raymond Amaro and Glenda Ferrari. Two more newcomers, Mike Barber and Ed Vega, are running to replace former trustee Brian Martin, to fill the remaining two years of his term.

Martin’s seat became open when was sentenced in May to 17 years in prison for sexually abusing a child under his guardianship, who bore his child.

Also running is former trustee Henrietta Macias, who has been among the harshest critics of Cotterell’s and the board’s performance, and wants an audit of the district’s finances, though she stops short of calling for Cotterell’s ouster.

“I just want to hold her accountable. We have to have a forensic audit done,” said Macias, who says flatly that the board has been lining its own pockets, pointing to decisions such as a June resolution apparently committing the board to giving administrators a raise if funds become available.

Other questions Macias wants answered are why the district seemingly pays for a full-time lawyer, Pamela Dempsey, as opposed to having one on call as needed, and why maintenance work is farmed out to contractors instead of being done by the district’s own staff.

But Macias emphasizes that her main concern is, she doesn’t think the district’s schoolchildren are getting the education they’re entitled to.

“Our children aren’t learning. This board has been lining its own pockets for so long, they’ve forgotten what they’re there for,” said Macias, echoing a recurring theme among candidates that the board is out of touch with the community it serves.

Concern that the board is not working in the interests of the community has also prompted retired business owner Raymond Amaro to run. Amaro says he wants to help resolve the issues that have divided the board and the teachers union.

“I see a lot of problems — there’s definitely issues that need to be addressed,” said Amaro, who says his experience running a business and growing up as a migrant farmworker taught him how to operate with limited resources.

“You need to live within your means, take into account who is receiving and who is being neglected,” Amaro said of the district’s budget crisis. “Everything needs to be researched and investigated.”

Like Torres and Macias, Amaro doesn’t think the board’s general demeanor and attitude — he points to the board’s frequent special meetings that limit public comment — have lent themselves to problem solving.

“Nobody’s perfect, but there’s ways to work together to resolve things,” said Amaro, who has lived in El Rio since 1961.

Bringing district officials and staff together is also the focus of Mike Barber’s campaign, said the retired iron worker, who is president of Nyeland water supplier Garden Acres Mutual Water Co.

“There’s been a black cloud hanging over this school district for a long time, and the kids are suffering because of the distractions,” said Barber, noting that he has been able to observe events in the school district since he moved to the area in 1971.

“I’d like to be a calming influence and bring people together to solve these problems,” said Barber, adding that he particularly wants to work in support of maintenance and to prevent district infrastructure from falling into disrepair.

Cotterell was out of town Monday and unavailable for comment, but Board President Tim Blaylock disagreed that children are not being made the top priority of the board.

“We’re putting kids first and foremost, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” said Blaylock, who says he doesn’t personally know any of the candidates except for Barber, whom he says he’ll be rooting for because, “I know he cares about kids.”

Blaylock, who was elected to the board in a 2006 recall election, said most teachers are supportive of the board, and notes that much of the criticism comes from people who were unhappy with the previous board as well.

“I don’t believe in special interest groups, I believe in kids,” said Blaylock, who is chief professional officer of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme.

“When I was elected, there were a lot of challenges. We’ve cleaned up a lot of that,” Blaylock said, specifically citing litigation that has been settled, and balanced budgets.

“In the past, the board has never been consistent about anything. The board is solid now. All I can say is, I think we’ve done a really good job of improving things,” said Blaylock, who added that, ironically, if he had known in 2006 what he has learned since joining the board, he would not have run.

“Now that I know, I believe (the recalled trustees) were trying to do the right thing,” Blaylock said.   

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