Oxnard's Rio School District faces tough times

Budgetary woes, impending mass layoffs and alleged criminal misconduct by high-ranking officials mar the district’s reputation

By David Michael Courtland 03/18/2010

The latest chapter in the ongoing drama surrounding Rio School District opened March 8 with the seemingly annual announcement by the board of trustees of pink slips for several dozen teachers.

The announcement was made at a relatively short, one-hour special meeting, followed by Finance Director Mark Krueger’s report that the district will run out of money by Spring 2011 if costs are not drastically slashed.

By Friday, the total number of teachers facing layoffs grew from 46 announced at the meeting to 55. Besides those, six teachers retired, another six still on job probation will not be asked back.

Eleven temporary teachers were also laid off, making a total of 78 teachers leaving the district, out of 212, which is more than one-third of the teachers currently employed there.

“They would have to close three schools in order to lose that many teachers,” said Rio Teachers Association (RTA) President Rebecca Barbetti.

The board also laid off a special program coordinator, but that doesn’t affect the budget because that administrator’s salary was paid from a separate state fund.

In 2008 and 2009, the 60 teachers tentatively laid off were spared when trustees recalled the pink slips in May, the official deadline for layoffs.

But it became less likely that scenario would occur this year as Krueger told trustees, and teachers attending the meeting with their families, that the district would be $500,000 in the red at the end of the coming fiscal year without concessions from teachers.

Krueger presented numbers that were arrived at by assuming teachers will make $1.1 million in concessions, including two furlough days this year and next year, which he said would amount to a 1 percent salary reduction.

He also recommended suspending the teachers’ retirement fund and forgiving district contributions not made to it so far this year, prompting board President Tim Blaylock to ask, “Can’t we just raid that fund?”

Krueger explained that the retirement fund is untouchable without the RTA’s agreement. Rio is one of only six Ventura County school districts that have retirement funds established; Krueger noted it is the third-largest fund among those six.

“This is clearly going to take all of our efforts — we’re going to have to have those concessions — is what you’re saying,” Blaylock said following Krueger’s report.

“That’s correct,” said Krueger. “We’ve exhausted our options for making cuts without concessions.”

Without concessions, the district faces $4.25 million in cost overruns at the end of fiscal year 2010-11. But even with them, Krueger’s figures show the district going $3.15 million over budget.

If the board and teachers are unable to reach an agreement by spring, the district faces the prospect of being placed in receivership by the State Department of Education, which would assign a management team to take over day-to-day operations until the district is solvent again.

But Blaylock discounted that possibility in a Friday phone conversation, saying it is a decision two years down the road if it comes to that at all.

“The real issue here is that we have to cut $4.2 million from the budget and, to do that, we’re going to need some concessions from the teacher’s association,” Blaylock said.

Blaylock indicated that the board may declare a fiscal emergency, giving it carte blanche authority to do whatever it takes to balance the budget — with or without the RTA’s cooperation.

“That’s a possibility,” Blaylock said. “We’re analyzing right now at what point we’re going to run out of money. At that point, I believe that we’ll declare an emergency.”

Barbetti said the board has made that threat several times before, adding that California Teachers Association (CTA) lawyers have told her the move would be illegal since the board’s contract with the RTA doesn’t specifically give it that option.

“There would be a huge lawsuit,” said Barbetti, who explained that the sticking point stopping teachers from discussing concessions is that the board refuses to hand over budget data the association has asked for

“The school board continues to ask RTA to come in and negotiate. We continue to tell them they need to give us the financial information we requested,” said Barbetti.

“Until that happens, there will be no discussion,” Barbetti continued. “Every opportunity they have, they blame the association instead of discussing a plan.”

Among the questions the RTA has about the district’s finances is why the budget cuts the board is asking for seem to be disproportionately larger than ones made in other Ventura County districts.

“Either there’s some significant mismanagement going on, or somebody is lying,” said Barbetti.

Allegations of lying and mismanagement are nothing new in Rio School District, where teacher Lynette Lucas’ claims prompted an internal CTA investigation of RTA’s finances earlier this year.

The CTA found no wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop Lucas from castigating Barbetti at the March 8 meeting, calling some of Barbetti’s past statements outright lies as she assured trustees there are teachers willing work with the board — possibly even enough for a union decertification vote.

Meanwhile, the board operates under the cloud of criminal charges against its superintendent and one of the trustees.

Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell faces a misdemeanor petty theft charge for allegedly shoplifting shoes at T.J. Maxx in Oxnard on July 20. Cotterell, who has blamed stress and health issues for the incident, has an April 16 hearing.

More recently, trustee Brian Martin has been charged with several counts of child molestation and a special allegation of causing great bodily injury -- the birth of a child. Martin's March 16 arraignment was postponed until March 30 in order to evaluate his finances and find out if he qualifies for services from the Ventura County Public Defender's Office. Martin, an electrician, mechanic and former president of the board, posted $250,000 bail March 1.

Martin, a former president of the board who did not attend Monday’s meeting, was one of three trustees forced into a recall election in 2006 but was re-elected with two new trustees.

“These people have changed from what we believed they were,” said Jim Pearson, who supported the recall effort and whose wife is among the teachers who got pink slips. “They’ve let us down horribly.”     

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Thank you David for finally putting an article out there that addresses what is going on in the Rio School District. The STAR seems to only print one-sided stories. As a teacher in the Rio School District it is extremely disheartening to know that immoral people such as Sherianne Cotterell and Brian Martin are in charge. Other than bringing embarrassment to our district what has Sherrianne Cotterell done? Tim Blaylock is constantly praising and protecting Cotterell saying that she has done so many great things for Rio, but as a teacher I have not seen them. What has Sherrianne done other than change the logo? She got rid of teaming (a research based method for improving education) at the middle school and created a revolving door of administrators at Rio Vista middle School (3 principals in 3 years), and creatde discontent and discord. The Rio School District needs to have open communication with RTA and start making the education of Rio students a priority.

posted by teach4socialjustice on 3/18/10 @ 08:15 p.m.
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