The Crow's Nest

Santa Paula’s political drama

By by Spotter 08/30/2012

Santa Paula is a bucolic setting that lends itself to beautiful paintings and sunsets on South Mountain. But when it’s time for politics, there is no such thing as calm.

This fall, the Spotter sees a lot of rollicking fun and noise in town.

Two City Council seats are being decided. Two incumbents and two challengers have filed. The incumbents are Fred Robinson, recently retired, and Jim Tovias, an insurance agent. Both are finishing their first terms. The challengers are Duane Ashby and Martin Hernandez, field representative for Supervisor Kathy Long. Working in the field for the popular Supervisor Long, he has made a lot of allies and few enemies. The Council’s record over the last four years is marked with slip-ups and changes in key administrative posts. A popular city manager resigned and was followed by one who left a political hotbed in Nogales, Ariz. The Council dumped one chief, hired another, and then dumped him in a proverbial messy divorce.

But the real fun in Santa Paula involves the schools. Yes, this town of 25,000 has five school districts. That is not a typo. There are one high school district and four — count ‘em, four — elementary school districts. Three of these districts have one school apiece. So, naturally, there is an election to unify two of the districts: the Santa Paula Elementary School District and the high school district. Oddly enough, the three one-school districts are not in the unification vote. The reasons why there are separate districts are historical, economic and racial. Few speak about these issues aloud, but Santa Paula has long been plagued by a split between working-class Latinos and upper-class Anglos who own the ranches. This trickled down to school choices (although all schools in the district are overwhelmingly Latino today). Ask why the small districts are not included in the unification vote, and long-time Santa Paula folks will smile and think you naive.

Long timers in Santa Paula favor the unification of the two big districts and leaving the small fries alone. The boards of the two districts in the unification battle are either silent (the high school board) or on the record as opposed to unification (the elementary board). The free-for-all comes in the race for the unified school board, which pits newcomers, old-timers who support unification and old-timers who oppose unification.

Debates and presentations on the unification issue have — to this point — been pretty tame. (A Latino Town Hall forum on the topic was mild.) But that’s not likely to stay placid for long. The race has attracted Michelle Kolbeck and Ginger Gherardi, who are on opposite sides of unification and not shy about their opinions.


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