The tides of change are rising in Rio.

On Thursday, Feb. 24, the newly elected Rio School District Board of Trustees will publicly address and make a decision about possibly dismissing publicly criticized Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell from her contract.

Cotterell, who was hired in 2006, was convicted of misdemeanor petty theft for stealing two pairs of shoes from a local store last year, inciting members of the community to repeatedly call for her ouster. But last November, the previous board members, just prior to the new board being elected, gave Cotterell outstanding scores on her 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 performance evaluation, which, because of an “Evergreen clause” in her contract, extended her contract through the 2013 school year.

But only one incumbent remains on the board with four newcomers elected on the platform of “change.”

“With the previous board, there were allowances, and maybe she (Cotterell) had an open card,” said Eleanor Torres, board president. “But the new members are looking at things differently.”

Torres said that the new board members were elected to bring change to the Rio School District and be the voice of the community.

“We are a voice for the people. We will listen to the people, and if changes need to be made then that is why we are here,” said Torres.

Thursday night’s agenda calls for a closed session that will evaluate the superintendent’s performance, followed by a decision to discipline the superintendent or dismiss her from her contract. The board will then provide a report of the closed session at the 6:30 public meeting.

Cotterell’s salary is $165,000, plus incentives. If her contract is terminated, she will receive an 18-month payout.

She could not be reached for comment.

Following Cotterell’s conviction, which resulted in 36 months of probation, protests were staged and outcry poured from the community about the bad example Cotterell displayed for the students of the Rio School District.

“The fact remains, she planned her theft,” said Jim Hensley, Ventura County deputy district director, League of United Latin American Citizens. “For her to plan and premeditate to steal is not good character and that should not be permitted. Anybody else would have been terminated right off the bat.”

Cotterell claimed she shoplifted because she was under tremendous stress and pressure for trying to help a child who was molested by former Rio School District trustee Brian Martin. Martin was arrested in Feb. 2010 and sentenced to 17 years in prison for sexually abusing a minor and fathering her child.

Despite the shoplifting conviction that was filmed by store cameras, Cotterell maintained the vote of confidence from the previous board.

“I think she has done an incredible job,” Trustee Tim Blaylock said after the previous board unanimously granted an extension to Cotterell’s contract.

But the reviews are mixed from others not on the board.

“The superintendent has done a good job of bringing grant money into the district,” said Rebecca Barbetti, president of the Rio Teachers Association, “but she has failed as an educational leader. . . . She leads through intimidation. She pushes people instead of having them follow, and it doesn’t work well.”

Also on the table for the Thursday board meeting is the hiring of a new legal counsel in the district, according to Torres.

“We have asked for an RFP (request for proposal) on legal counsels out there and they are now in,” Torres said. The deadline for the RFPs was Feb. 16.

The relationship between Cotterell and the current counsel, Pamela Dempsey, is not for the best interest of the board or the district, said Torres.

“When counsel crosses over from professionalism to friendship, that is when you are going to start having problems,” Torres said. “If we had to talk to her about the superintendent, I don’t think we would get the counsel we would really need to have. I feel it has crossed over to ‘what can I do for Sherianne?’ ”

Whether or not the board will come to a final decision Thursday night, Torres vowed to clean up the image of the district.

The district has had years of bad publicity and it is time that it has stopped,” she insisted. “People are appalled to what has happened here. With the right leadership, we can change it. We are going to do what’s right.”   

shane@vcreporter.com