Ojai Unified faces departures of superintendent and two board members

Ojai Unified School District Trustee Atticus Reyes (center) was elected last November. (Photo submitted)

Atticus Reyes knew that Ojai Unified School District faced numerous challenges when he decided to run for the board of trustees last November, but he had no idea about the magnitude of the issues before he won election.

During his short time on the board Reyes has faced votes on massive cutbacks that include laying off dozens of staff members while closing and consolidating school campuses in an effort to save nearly $4 million a year. Meanwhile the district’s bonds have been downgraded by Wall Street due to financial issues. Recent weeks have seen the ouster of Superintendent Tiffany Morse and resignations by Board President Rebecca Chandler and Vice President Shelly Griffen. That leaves Reyes and two other board members who were also first elected in November, Jim Halverson and Phil Moncharsh, in charge of leading the district until the other seats can be filled.

Reyes, 26, told the Ventura County Reporter that he decided to run because of the positive experiences he had at Nordhoff High School after moving to Ojai from the San Fernando Valley during his teenage years.

“I knew that there was a crisis coming,” Reyes said. “I didn’t know it would be this deep, but I knew that there were troubles that needed some minds to help, and I thought it was the appropriate time to step up and try to serve and help a district that is really close to my heart and a town that’s really close to my heart.”

As the youngest board member and the only one without kids of his own, Reyes thought he could bring a new perspective to solving the district’s issues since he was a student not very long ago. “I was the only member on the school board that went to the school. All the other board members had kids, of course, that they sent to the school. So we all have really tight relationships with the school district. But I was the only one that went to the school. I’m the youngest on the board, the only one that went to the high school here and then also the only Latino on the board so I was looking at that lack of diversity and representation.”

Although the school board was the first public office Reyes has run for, he’s already a political veteran in some ways. When he was a student at California State University Channel Islands he was elected student government president in his senior year and won a prestigious internship in Washington D.C. After graduating, he landed a fellowship in Sacramento that lasted more than a year where he gained public policy experience. He now works full time as a field representative for California State Assemblymember Steve Bennett where transportation, immigration and education are issues he’s focused on.

“I have some policy, legislative experience. So I’m also kind of like a Swiss Army knife for the assemblymember,” Reyes said.

As for the reasons behind the district’s dire financial situation, Reyes said it’s primarily due to years of declining enrollment that’s cut the district population nearly in half, and a failure to make necessary cutbacks since education funding is based on attendance.

“If you take a community like Ojai that is small, aging, becoming unaffordable, many squeeze out working class and middle class families or just families in general,” Reyes explained. “You see a school district like Ojai Unified that has lost in the past 20 years 50% of its students. So you have this long undercurrent, this wave of a crisis that is just waiting to hit.”

While the departures of the superintendent and the longest tenured board members were a shock to some residents of the community and a relief to others, Reyes said he’s focused on the future and not the past.

“It is always with deep gratitude and appreciation for their service to our community and our school district during a difficult time. And their experience and their insights will be missed,” Reyes said. “It doesn’t change anything in the mission, right? Which is, how do we stabilize the financial situation of this district and try to increase and expand the educational opportunities for our students?”

Now that difficult decisions have been made regarding layoffs and school consolidation Reyes said he’s hopeful the district is on the road to recovery even with the recent resignations.

“So I know all of this news comes off as things are falling apart even more,” Reyes said. “I see this as we’re really, I believe, on an upward trajectory to stabilizing and righting this situation.”