Rio School District brings in new leadership

By David Michael Courtland 06/23/2011

Oxnard’s frequently divided Rio School Board trustees came together long enough to unanimously pick Dr. John Fitzpatrick to temporarily manage the troubled school district, Board President Eleanor Torres announced at the board’s June 10 meeting.

“I like to help districts that are troubled; I see myself as a problem solver,” Fitzpatrick said in a June 14 phone conversation. “Rio has a lot of issues, and I think my experience will help.”

Among issues Fitzpatrick said he wanted to address immediately are bringing together the board’s divided trustees and straightening out management of meetings “that they seem to be having a problem with.” He also singled out the district’s ongoing budget crisis, adding that he wants to resolve issues with teachers negotiating a new contract.
Fitzpatrick, who is scheduled to take office July 1, retired after nine years as Las Virgenes Unified School District’s superintendent in July 2004. He served as Pepperdine University’s superintendent in residence from 2004 to 2009, more recently handling interim superintendent duties for Beverly Hills Unified and South Pasadena Unified School Districts.

During Fitzpatrick’s tenure in Las Virgenes, which is based in Los Angeles County but includes some Ventura County schools, students consistently racked up some of the highest API (Academic Performance Index) scores in Southern California. (Seven of the eight schools in the Rio School District are in program improvement, meaning the schools are performing below average in the state, though test scores have improved over the years.) He was also instrumental in getting a parcel tax and a $93 million facilities bond measure approved by voters.

Fitzpatrick and four other retirees with experience as interims were interviewed in recent weeks by Rio’s board as they worked with Ventura County Office of Education Superintendent Stanley Mantooth to find a replacement for the district’s controversial former Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell.

“The way I like to describe things in Rio is ‘unsettled,’ ” Mantooth said on June 13, noting that Fitzpatrick was among several retired superintendents who expressed interest in the job even before the board launched a formal search.

“Really high-quality leaders don’t want to go where the work is easy,” Mantooth continued. “They embrace challenges because they have exceptional skills and experience — I think it’s a really good person who won’t shy away from it.”

Mantooth said the board had interviewed “five very good candidates,” and that although Fitzpatrick wouldn’t be able to solve all of the district’s problems, he would lay the groundwork for a permanent superintendent.

“I was impressed that he had an entry plan; I was very impressed with that part of his presentation,” said Trustee Mike Barber on June 14, noting that Fitzpatrick’s plan was very detailed. Barber said he also liked the fact that Fitzpatrick is familiar with Ventura County and its Board of Education. “We need leadership — we sure don’t have it now.”

Leadership, or lack of it, has been a central issue driving apart trustees, teachers and parents for more than a decade, with board members often at odds with superintendents as well as each other.

Complicating matters still further is the district’s budget crisis. Rio’s board has had a strained relationship with the Rio Teacher’s Association, and negotiations over a new contract with teachers are at an impasse.

Finance Director Mark Krueger, who has been sharing district management duties with Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wagner, has identified teachers’ medical and retirement benefits as the factors most contributing to a budget deficit.

In March, the board fired Cotterell, with only Trustee Tim Blaylock voting no. Barber was unable to attend that meeting but has made it clear he opposed firing the embattled administrator, who has since filed a suit against the district.

Barber and Tim Blaylock have maintained that the cash-strapped district can’t afford Cotterell’s severance package; trustees Torres, Henrietta Macias and Ramon Rodriguez have stood firm in their decision to fire Cotterell.

At last week’s meeting, Torres announced Cotterell’s lawsuit.

Cotterell is alleging that the board did not properly give her or the public notice that it was considering firing her. The Brown Act, which governs the conduct of meetings by public officials, requires 60 days’ notice.   



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