Oxnard's troubled Rio School District faces more challenges

School board chair suffers a heart attack; teachers may go on strike due to contract negotiations

By David Courtland 05/10/2012

Rio School Board Trustee Eleanor Torres is home recovering from a heart attack suffered last week. Torres is resting comfortably after returning home Saturday from the hospital.

Interim Rio School District Superintendent Howard Hamilton took a moment from a meeting Tuesday afternoon to confirm that Torres, the board’s chairwoman had “a mild heart attack” requiring two splints.

“They took her to the hospital. She’s feeling much better now,” said Howard, who said Torres had two blockages and is recovering at home on medication, adding, “She’ll be at the meeting Thursday.” The board members will be considering superintendent candidates at that meeting.

The illness adds tension to an ongoing drama, coming shortly after Trustees Torres, Ramon Rodriguez and Henrietta Macias were given notice at the Board’s April 26 meeting of a possible recall election that, for now, appears to be stymied.

The notices were delivered on the heels of an earlier report at League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) meeting in April that Rio teacher Lynette Lucas had canvassed a neighborhood with leaflets calling for recall of “The Rio Three.” Lucas is a longtime critic of the trustees who voted to fire former superintendent Sherianne Cotterell last year.

But Assistant County Clerk and Recorder Tracy Saucedo said the signatures submitted fell short of the 10 required from currently registered voters for each trustee who was given notice, making it unlikely a recall election could be added to the November ballot.

Saucedo said that if recall supporters were able to get the required number of signatures — after the notices are delivered, supporters would still need to gather 2,641 signatures, 20 percent of the school district’s registered voters — a special election would probably have to be held.

“It’s a distraction that comes at a time when we’re trying to find a new superintendent,” said Hamilton, “and these things (special elections) aren’t cheap. They’re costly.”

Even as it searches for a new superintendent to take the helm of a troubled school district, the Rio School Board is faced with the looming threat of a teachers strike and continued disagreement over the management of its afterschool program.

At an April 30 special meeting, the board voted 3-1, with Trustee Tim Blaylock absent, to accept a subcommittee’s report on the afterschool program. The report gave the program glowing reviews for achieving its goals but suggested that switching its management from the Port Hueneme Boys & Girls Club to a district administrator might be more efficient.

The possible change rubbed Trustee Mike Barber the wrong way, prompting him to cast the lone dissenting vote even though the board is not yet making any decisions regarding management of the program.

Barber said at the meeting that his concern is that district management of the program would mean hiring a new administrator during a budget crisis, leaving that much less money available for student needs.

“I really do not have a clear picture of where this $80,000 is supposed to come from,” Barber said after asking staff what the cost of hiring an administrator would be. “It’s either going to come out of administrative costs, or it’s going to be paid for by kids.”

But Hamilton said the report simply notes that one of the areas where the program can be improved is coordination with school curriculum.

Because of budget constraints, the recommendations made in the report “may not be something we can implement right away, but at least we have a blueprint,” Hamilton said in a May 2 phone interview.

“It’s a good program, but there’s room for improvement, and we can do more to make sure that we’re aligned with what’s being taught,” Howard said. “Right now, we’re making the best effort that we can, but we can get better.”

Meanwhile, the district’s ongoing contract negotiations with teachers are threatening to give students another type of lesson.

Almost as soon as the Rio Teachers Association and the district submitted proposals for negotiation last year, an impasse was declared by the district. Once the Public Employment Relations Board certified that the two parties were at impasse, a state mediator was appointed to work with each side to reach a settlement.

When mediation fails to resolve an impasse, either side can ask for fact-finding certification. In the fact-finding process, the state assigns an impartial arbitrator, and the two sides pick members to represent them. Each side presents its proposals to the arbitrator, who crafts a settlement from them and sends it to the school board.

The proposed settlement is advisory; neither side is required to accept it. Once the arbitrator has crafted a settlement, the district can impose its last, best and final offer, and teachers can legally strike if not satisfied with it.

“The district declared impasse before each side even explained their proposals,” Barbetti said in an e-mail message, noting that the district’s negotiators threatened to declare impasse within the first two hours of the start of negotiations last year, and that they asked for fact-finding after two meetings following impasse. “The district and RTA are in the fact-finding stage of negotiations.”

Barbetti says the RTA has offered the district more than $4.8 million in concessions over the next three years in the form of five furlough days — a pay reduction — and a reduction in the quality of health and welfare benefits, offering to pay 100 percent of the health and welfare expense increases for retirees and current employees.

But the district has remained steadfast in its demand that there be a cap on health and welfare benefit expense increases, with newly hired teachers offered no retirement benefits at all. Barbetti says if that remains the district’s final offer, there is a strong likelihood of a strike later this year.

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