Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Community College Settles Sex Case Lawsuit for $2.5M

A former secretary at El Camino College near Torrance who accused her boss — a dean — of sexual harassment will receive $2.5 million in a settlement with the school.

The secretary, Nyesha Artiaga of Los Angeles, said the former dean, James Schwartz, subjected her to more than two years of sexual harassment and allegedly raped her in his locked office, according to court documents.

The community college will pay about a third of the settlement, or $833,000, and its insurance company will pick up the bulk of the rest, although Schwartz was ordered to chip in $25,000.

Artiaga said the harassment took place from 2007 to 2009. In graphically worded court documents, Artiaga, 33, accused Schwartz, 74, of groping her, demanding sex on his birthday and threatening to fire her or downgrade her performance review if she refused to have sex with him.

The documents also state that Schwartz, then the interim dean of fine arts, offered her up to $800 in exchange for sex in hotel rooms. While Schwartz did not deny that they had a sexual relationship, he contended that it was consensual.

The case is a setback to El Camino, which in recent months has been defending itself against two similar harassment cases that are intertwined with Ariaga’s.

In October, the college was vindicated when a judge ruled mostly in favor of the district in a sexual harassment and discrimination case filed by a former dean, Kristi Blackburn, who claimed she was the victim of a “good old boys” club.

The third case is set to begin today, with a jury trial in Los Angeles. In that one, former professor Carmen Hunt says the district tried to force her out for taking extended leaves of absence due to post-traumatic stress stemming from an alleged sexual assault by a former dean (not Schwartz).

As for the Artiaga case, the former secretary also made claims against El Camino’s current vice president of academic affairs, Francisco Arce, who was Schwartz’s superior before Schwartz’s decadeslong tenure ended in June.

Artiaga said Arce had had it in for her even before Schwartz became her boss in March 2007. For instance, she said Arce had coerced Schwartz’s predecessor – Blackburn – to give her a negative performance review. (Blackburn concurred in the lawsuit she lost.)

El Camino officials went public with the settlement on Tuesday during their regular school board meeting. As part of the settlement, which the El Camino board approved in closed session in January, Artiaga agreed to quit her job and never to apply for employment with El Camino again.

Public disclosure of the settlement wasn’t required by law, but school board President Bill Beverly said the board decided to do so largely to show it has nothing to hide.

“Now maybe people will know, if this should ever happen to them, to stand up and say something – this isn’t Libya,” he said. “I believe if somebody is taken advantage of or trodden upon, they are going to get protected, and the bad guy is going to get what’s coming to them. Maybe this will prevent it from happening – or from happening again if it did happen.”

But Beverly also said nobody besides Artiaga and Schwartz really knows what happened between them. He insisted that while Artiaga often filed complaints to human resources about other co-workers and bosses, she never – to his knowledge – filed anything internally about the alleged abuse from Schwartz.

“If someone had come to us when the incident first occurred, we would have immediately separated them and gotten to the bottom of it,” he said. “But you have to give us a chance to protect you. It’s like expecting the police to show up and protect you from a burglary if you don’t call.”

Schwartz’s administrative career with El Camino spanned four decades. He served as the dean of health sciences and athletics from 1975 to 1996, the interim vice president of academic affairs from 1996 to 2005, the interim dean of fine arts from 2007 to 2009, and the interim dean of the health services and athletics division from 2009 until his departure in June.

In 2009, he was inducted into the El Camino College Athletic Hall of Fame. During his last year at El Camino, his annual salary was about $141,000, according to a college record.

While accounts differ as to whether the relations were consensual, nobody disputes that there were improper sexual relations between a supervisor and a subordinate, Beverly said.

“The disappointment on the part of the board is that a trusted and well-liked employee (Schwartz) at a minimum exercised very bad judgment and at a maximum, who knows,” Beverly said. “No. 2, we have an employee who allegedly was being subjected to – again, in the worst light – some type of extorted behavior.”

Schwartz, who didn’t return a call requesting comment, was hired as Artiaga’s superior in March 2007, after Blackburn left the post amid turbulence with Arce.

Also unavailable for comment were Artiaga’s attorney, Trina Roderick, and the college’s attorney, Larry Frierson.

“Upon their first introduction, Schwartz hugged Artiaga for an uncomfortably long time, his body making contact with both of her breasts and pelvis,” said a complaint for damages filed by Artiaga’s lawyers about a year ago. “Artiaga felt groped as Schwartz patted her back and kissed her on the cheek.”

On Sept. 14 of that year, Artiaga said, Schwartz requested sex as a birthday gift. Meanwhile, her office mates, unaware of the dynamic between them, were planning a surprise birthday party for him.

“They treated him as if he were a god … worshipping the ground he walked on and digesting every word that came out of his mouth,” she said in a written testimony. “UNBELIEVABLE how much power one man can have.”

By her telling, the co-workers arranged to hold the surprise party at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in Torrance. They asked Artiaga to drive Schwartz to the party, and she played along. In the car, on the way to the party, she said, Schwartz began groping her, allegedly pushing her head into his groin area. She said he demanded they get a hotel room.

“I panicked, knowing that the office staff was waiting for us at the restaurant,” she wrote. Artiaga said she suggested they get a glass of wine at P.F. Chang’s.

“He agreed! To further the humiliation, he patted my head as if I were a dog,” she wrote.

When they entered the restaurant, the surprise party was waiting.

“The SHOCK on his face when he saw our staff was priceless,” she wrote. “He was very angry with me but could not openly express himself with everyone around so instead he kept nudging me under the table.”

It was later that day that the alleged rape took place, according to her written account.

By August 2009, Schwartz had moved on to become the interim dean of physical education, but was still responsible for her performance evaluation. According to court documents, Schwartz met with her on campus and showed her two completed evaluations, one negative and one “slightly positive.”

“He then began rubbing Artiaga’s legs, telling her it was her `decision.”‘

According to a written complaint filed with the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Schwartz harassed Artiaga on her voice mail at work as recently as September 2009.

“Ms. Artiaga believes Mr. Schwartz has sexually harassed other employees he has supervised and that the employer knew, or had reason to know, that Mr. Schwartz had a history of sexually harassing the employees he supervised,” the complaint said.

In July 2009, Constance Fitzsimons had taken over as the dean of fine arts. Artiaga accused her, too, of retaliation and harassment.

“In their first meeting, Fitzsimons told Artiaga that Schwartz and Arce `told (her) things about’ Artiaga,” the complaint said. “Fitzsimons, from her first day as Artiaga’s supervisor, has micromanaged Artiaga’s work in a clear attempt to `find cause’ to terminate her employment.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley school board reprimands Suarez during contentious meeting

Centinela Valley school board reprimands Suarez during contentious meeting

Political tensions have reached a boiling point in the Centinela Valley school district in Lawndale, where the school board has issued a formal public reprimand to its most outspoken member.

The fireworks happened Tuesday night, when the board voted 2-1, with one abstention, to censure fellow trustee Sandra Suarez, who has publicly raised questions in recent weeks about all manner of issues, from the amount of money the district spends on attorney fees to the cross-country travel of the board.

In general, the board vote, with Rocio Pizano absent and Gloria Ramos abstaining, said Suarez has overstepped her authority in several respects.

A censure is an official rebuke or severe admonishment for an abuse of power or lapse of judgement on the part of a policymaker. It carries no formal consequences other than public humiliation.

The move raises questions about how much authority an elected school board member has when he or she is acting as an individual. In the case of the Centinela Valley school board — which oversees operations at Leuzinger, Lawndale and Hawthorne high schools — three of the five board members rarely ask questions or cast dissenting votes in public meetings. Suarez, meanwhile, has begun questioning almost everything the district does of late.

Suarez struck back Tuesday night, saying school board President Hugo Rojas — who initiated the reprimand — is the one who should be censured: He teaches a karate class out of Leuzinger High School.

“The difference between Mr. Rojas and myself is he’s working at Leuzinger getting a paycheck and I’m working at Leuzinger volunteering for free,” she said Tuesday night, drawing gasps from the crowd of about 60.

Rojas could not be reached for comment, but district officials insist that her accusation is a mischaracterization.

After the vote, a handful of residents – all of them supporters of Suarez – stormed out of the meeting, shouting “recall!” This prompted Rojas to bang the gavel and call the group “out of order.”

The case against Suarez was made in a strongly worded five-page letter signed by Rojas.

In it, Rojas pointed to several e-mails she allegedly sent directly to district employees, including principals and assistant superintendents, to request information or to scold them. Rojas said this circumvents the chain of command, because board members are supposed to deal directly with the superintendent.

He also said her recent request, made in person at the district office, to review all legal counsel billings for the past two years was conducted in a disruptive manner and was inappropriate because she was not acting on behalf of the board.

“No individual Board Member is stamped with the imprimatur of the collective Board to interfere in personnel matters,” he wrote. “You engaged in disruptive conduct when you raised your voice and stormed out of the Business Services Department.”

Suarez’s supporters on Tuesday night said she is being punished for asking tough questions.

“This is absolutely idiotic,” fumed Teresa Alcantara, a graduate of Leuzinger High School. “Sandy is actually saying something to actually put a thought in people’s minds, instead of just rubber-stamping.”

“I’m appalled by the possible censure of Sandra Suarez,” said Patrick Holmes of El Camino Village. “Everything she is saying appears to be true.”

A stay-at-home mother of 10 children, Suarez, whose first term expires in November, has been a volunteer in the school district for 15 years. In 1996 she reactivated what had been the long-defunct PTA at Leuzinger High School. She is currently the school’s band booster president. Herself a 1972 graduate of the school, Suarez also founded Leuzinger’s alumni association, which organizes the school’s annual Memorabilia Day every March.

Much of the recent acrimony centers on Suarez’s affinity for history.

Relations between Suarez and the district leadership first began to sour in the summer. That’s when she discovered that a ballot measure asking voters to approve a $98 million construction bond would lead to the demolition of buildings at Leuzinger she considers historic. Two weeks before the November election, Suarez – who initially supported the measure – reversed course and came out against it. (The measure passed.)

Not long after, Suarez began raising questions about other issues. She asked to view estimated hotel and flight expenses for four scheduled trips to be taken by other members of the board. She requested information on stipends for administrators. She publicly expressed regret about voting for the contract of Superintendent Jose Fernandez.

A couple of months ago, tensions escalated when Fernandez had the lock changed on the door to a room at Leuzinger High that Suarez and the alumni association had been using to store historic memorabilia. Fernandez said he is simply trying to ensure that no single organization has exclusive rights to occupy the public space.

He added that Suarez and the association are free to ask the plant manager to let them into the room. Suarez believes the move is retaliation for her opposition to the bond measure.

As for legal fees, Superintendent Fernandez said the district spends about $600,000 annually, or two-thirds less than the $1.8 million it paid lawyers the year he arrived, in 2007-08. The district works with a general fund budget of about $60 million.

Fernandez said when individual trustees do not secure permission from the rest of the board as a unit, their rights are equivalent to those of any member of the public. That means that such a trustee would not be allowed to view documents deemed confidential, he said. So when Suarez received the legal documents she was requesting, the specifics were blacked out.

Multiple calls to the California School Boards Association seeking clarification on the legal rights of individual board members were not returned Wednesday.

The recent unrest has strained board relations between Suarez and Ramos, who have historically been allies. Ramos said she believes the only thing Suarez will achieve by going it alone is “martyrdom.”

“The problems she has are real problems,” Ramos acknowledged. “But how is her behavior going to fix it? … If you don’t have a partnership, you can’t do it by yourself.”

Ramos added that she, too, is unafraid to vote against the wishes of the superintendent, when appropriate.

But the three other board members – Rojas, Pizano and Maritza Molina – are firmly aligned with the superintendent. At board meetings, they speak very little, and rarely, if ever, cast dissenting votes.

In the November 2009 election, those three board members beat out the three candidates favored by the teachers union. Their campaigns were all heavily financed by Telacu, the construction company charged with managing the district’s bond projects.

The last time the Centinela Valley school board censured a colleague was in late 2003, when it reprimanded then-President Jorge Arroyo for allegedly making sexist and profane remarks at a dinner.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance students shine amid cutbacks

Torrance students shine amid cutbacks

Torrance schools are experiencing historic cuts — probably the worst in the South Bay — but you’d never know it from the performance of the students.

As the budget situation gets bleaker, their measurable results seem to soar only higher.

Earlier this month, West High School achieved an impressive three-peat, winning its third consecutive academic decathlon, besting 54 other teams for the Los Angeles County title. Two other Torrance high schools placed in the top eight.

And that’s not all. API and SAT scores in Torrance are also defying the laws of economics, rising higher and higher as class sizes grow bigger and bigger. The success even extends to nationally televised game shows. On a teen episode of “Wheel of Fortune” that aired last week, two girls from Torrance High won $52,000. The runner-up team took home $3,000.


But Torrance educators are worried the day of reckoning is coming.

“The problem we have is I can’t predict when the financial situation will have an effect upon us, but it will have an effect upon us,” Superintendent George Mannon said. “There is a tipping point. We’re just not sure when we will experience it.”

In the past few years, the district’s annual budget has shrunk from $200 million to $150 million. Due to an outdated funding formula, Torrance receives less state money per student than most school districts.

Programs like summer school and the district orchestra are no more. High school English and math class sizes have surged past 40, at times reaching 45 or higher.

And yet, year after year in Torrance, test scores go up. The district’s API – a score from 200 to 1,000 based on student test scores – has risen steadily from 810 to 853. The state average is 767.

Torrance high-schoolers also are acing the SAT test, a college entry exam. While the average score in the state and nation hovers just above 1,500, in Torrance it’s 1,624, up from 1,613 the year before.

Demographics undoubtedly play a major role. A third of the 25,000 students in the district are Asian and another third are white, the two populations that score highest on test scores. In Torrance, 35 percent of the parents have college degrees, compared with just under 20 percent statewide.

But there are other factors. For one thing, test scores are rising all across California. Also, teachers in Torrance say they are burning the candle at both ends.

“We are dropping a lot of the extras and going straight with what we see on the tests,” Torrance teachers union President Julie Shankle said. “It’s no longer about teaching the kid. It’s about producing the test score.”

She said the pressure is beginning to take a physical and mental toll. Teachers are taking extended absences due to stress, for instance.

“I’ve had more than a few teachers come up to me and say, ‘I hate my job now,”‘ she said. “The joy has just been sucked out of it.”

Meanwhile, the students are under increasing pressure to master the material as the college application process gets more competitive.

Take Aaron Cheng, captain of West High’s academic decathlon team. One could argue that the easiest part of his day occurs during regular school hours. After that, he adjourns to the library to study with his academic decathlon teammates. In the two months before a meet, practice runs from 3 to 9 p.m.

Then he goes home, where he gets cracking on his real homework. He goes to bed sometime around 2 a.m. Every day in the shower, he practices impromptu speeches – a major facet of decathlon.

“The biggest challenge is learning how to survive with the stress,” said Cheng, who has been accepted to USC, and is waiting for a response from Harvard, MIT and Duke.

District favorite

As for the academic decathlon, it’s clearly a darling in the Torrance district. Despite all the budget cuts, the district has not only continued to support the program, but also gone above and beyond by allowing students to take decathlon as a class during the regular school day.

As a result, Torrance schools often rank among the best in not only the county, but also the state. Last year, West High took sixth. It could be said West High ranks among the top teams in United States, since the California champion in recent years has almost always taken the national trophy.

All told, the Torrance district spends a total of $40,000 to $50,000 on the program, or roughly $11,250 per school. The nonprofit Torrance Education Foundation chips in $2,500 per school to purchase study materials. The teams also raise funds for travel money.

Ann Cortina, the coach at West High, said she’s grateful for the support.

“Some districts don’t even have a coach stipend,” she said, adding that, in Torrance, whenever someone asks high-level administrators if the program is in danger, “they look at you like you’re crazy to suggest it.”

Bone-deep cuts

Meanwhile, educators in Torrance and across the state are fearful of an impending budget catastrophe.

Torrance administrators say that if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to ask California voters to extend temporary tax hikes doesn’t come to pass in June, the district will have to cut an additional $14 million from its $150 million budget.

“I don’t know where you are going to get that kind of money,” said Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union. “Classrooms don’t physically hold 100 students. They can’t handle 50. We have 40 and they were built for 30.”

One remarkable aspect of the district’s financial woes is how it hasn’t yet had the effect of stoking tensions between the teachers and the administrators. At least not publicly.

Di Leva cited a recent study by the California Department of Education concluding that Torrance is among the most administratively lean districts in California.

“Everyone is waiting for this situation to turn a corner, and it’s not going to happen,” he said. “This may be our new reality. … We are running this vehicle on the redline and on fumes. And there’s a lot at stake.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela travel bills criticized

Centinela travel bills criticized

A Centinela Valley school board member is raising strong objections to several out-of-state trips her four colleagues and the superintendent are making this year, saying it sends the wrong message during times of economic hardship.

Board member Sandra Suarez says now isn’t the time for the trustees of the small, academically struggling district composed of Lawndale, Hawthorne and Leuzinger high schools to be making trips to Washington, D.C., New Orleans, San Francisco and Texas.

“I think money for these conferences could be used for students,” Suarez said. “They don’t have buses to go to their events. They don’t have band equipment. … Centinela is not using their money properly.”

The four trips, scheduled between this weekend and mid-April, will cost the district a total of about $32,250, she said. Suarez, who in recent months has become something of a lone-wolf dissenter on the board, is also critical of a fifth trip in early March that will send three district employees to Las Vegas for a pizza expo, where, district officials say, they will learn how to make pizza in a more cost-effective and healthful manner. That one will cost the district $3,500.

“Why do three people have to go to the pizza expo and not just one?” she asked. “Then that one person can show the others what to do.”

Officials with the district counter that the trips are worth every penny. They say each conference offers an opportunity for professional development for school leaders. What’s more, they say, the annual foray to D.C., which this year runs from today through Tuesday, last year paid for itself 10 times over in the form of earmarks to the district from the office of South Bay Rep. Maxine Waters.

Superintendent Jose Fernandez said the Centinela Valley cadre took home $95,000 for a school program after lobbying the Democratic congresswoman’s office in person.

“Locally elected board members have to plead their case,” he said. “That’s the reason you go there. If you’ve ever been to Congress you know there are lots of people knocking on doors. That’s the way the system is designed.”

The debate comes at a time when school districts across the state are bracing for what could be even deeper cuts, given California’s historic $25 billion gap. In recent years, Centinela Valley has dodged the large-scale downsizing that has bedeviled districts in Torrance, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes Peninsula and elsewhere. But this year the Centinela district, too, is facing the specter of mass layoffs.

Most school districts in the area have severely curtailed school board travel. Torrance, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Wiseburn have all cut back — if not completely eliminated — all forms of travel for two years running.

“If they’ve gone somewhere, it’s always on their own dime,” said Carolyn Seaton, director of education services for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. “They refuse to let the district pay for that, even though it’s perfectly within their right.”

Seaton said the district hasn’t had a travel request in two years.

Wiseburn school board member Dennis Curtis, long an open critic of Centinela Valley, did not mince words in voicing his disapproval of the board’s travel itinerary.

“I’m a taxpayer in the Centinela Valley district and I’m appalled at that,” he said. “What really saddens me is the public doesn’t take a more active interest in Centinela Valley and see some of the more ridiculous things they are doing.”

But not everyone is critical of the journeys. At the Centinela Valley district’s last public meeting in late January, Eric Hall, a district-hired financial consultant, lauded the group’s trip to D.C. as a creative way to search for funds during difficult times.

“Investing in yourself, being self-sustaining, doing what you can to control your destiny,” he said. “I think you’re on a good path and I would just encourage you to continue to work on those things.”

Hall also warned Centinela school board members that they would likely not escape what could be a stormy season for California pubic schools.

“The days of trying to do more with less are over,” he said. “Many districts are now just deciding we have to do less.”

D.C. attendance low

This weekend’s conference in Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the National School Boards Association. The primary purpose of the 38th annual event – called the Federal Relations Network Conference – is to teach locally elected school board members how to lobby, said NSBA spokeswoman Linda Embrey.

“This is the only conference where local school board members come and lobby on The Hill,” she said.

Embrey said attendance is down this year due to the sluggish economy. All told, about 800 school board members were expected to attend, she said. That’s less than 1 percent of all school board members across the nation, she added.

The turnout from California was even thinner: Just 24 school board members were registered to come, Embrey said. That means the Centinela contingent constitutes one-sixth of the entire state pool.

In a sense, this could work to Centinela’s benefit. Fewer board members means less competition for earmarks. Then again, Rep. Waters said she would also be happy to meet with them in her Los Angeles office.

“I always make it a point to let my constituents know that when they are in D.C., they should always feel free to come by and visit with me and my staff,” she said in an e-mail to the Daily Breeze.

“I especially enjoy visiting with Centinela Valley officials, because of how many students they serve in Hawthorne and Lawndale. But I also return to Los Angeles weekly, and would be happy to make time to meet with them back home should budget concerns or other factors keep them from coming to Washington.”

Fernandez said the group plans to meet with other movers and shakers in Washington in addition to Waters, among them U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

The Maxine Waters earmark

Last year’s $95,000 earmark from Waters came from the Department of Labor. But it didn’t go directly to the Centinela schools. Instead, the money came to the South Bay Workforce Investment Board, which serves nine cities, including Lawndale and Hawthorne.

Specifically, the grant is for career exploration. The idea is to help young people find and keep a job, and to help motivate students to stay in school, said Jan Vogel, executive director of the South Bay Workforce Investment Board. He added that all of the money has been set aside for Centinela Valley students.

Centinela officials say their trip was also responsible for a $500,000 grant to the South Bay Workforce Investment Board. That grant helps students from several school districts land internships, among other things.

But Vogel said the grant was the fruit of a grant writer’s efforts. Asked if he thought the Centinela group lobbied specifically for that grant, he said, “I don’t know. I assume they did.”

At least one of this year’s trips will be partially subsidized. Superintendent Fernandez said that the board this year secured a small grant, worth about $3,400, to pay the airfare and two of three hotel nights in Austin, Texas. That trip is for the annual education leadership institute of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in early March.

At the district’s last regular school board meeting on Jan. 25, Suarez was the lone board member to vote against the four trips. She will not attend any of them.

Suarez’s disagreement with her colleagues isn’t limited to travel. At the Jan. 25 meeting, she was the lone “no vote” on three items besides the trips, and abstained from voting on eight others. The other four board members – Hugo Rojas, Rocio Pizano, Gloria Ramos and Maritza Molina – gave assenting votes on all items, as they tend to do.

Until recently, Suarez typically voted in lockstep with them, but there has been a falling out. The catalyst was a November construction bond measure that Suarez opposed, on the grounds that it would result in knocking down historic school buildings. (Suarez is an ardent history buff.) The $98 million bond measure was approved by voters, but ever since Suarez has become distrustful of the district.

Suarez — who also serves as Leuzinger High School’s band booster president — says she finds the travel issue all the more troubling because the high school band has forfeited going on trips due to money shortages. She said money is so tight that the band director sometimes cannot afford all the sheet music, and must write it out himself longhand.

As for Rojas, the school board president, he said the trips have helped him become a better steward of the public trust. He said he has learned about a host of school issues, such as safety, nutrition, technology and open meetings laws. Board members who haven’t gone, he added pointedly, have demonstrated an ignorance of “proper protocol.”

He added that the conferences have broadened his network of contacts in high places, which he said can be a boon to the schools.

“I recently met with (Los Angeles County) Sheriff Lee Baca,” he said. “Most school board members can’t just walk into his office.”

Last school year, the board also went on four trips that required airfare. They were to Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix. Suarez did not attend any of those trips, but she did go to Washington two years ago.

Expensive hotels

This past summer, the Daily Breeze obtained receipts for travel, hotel and food expenses.

The records, which appear to be incomplete, show board members billed the district for more than $12,000 on the trips. (Receipts for expenditures – except for coach airline travel – were not provided for the Chicago trip. Also, travel, accommodation and food receipts were not included for Molina’s trip to Phoenix.)

During the March 2010 trip to Washington, the Centinela contingent — Rojas, Molina, Fernandez and another district official, Hatha Parrish — stayed for three nights at the Four Seasons, a luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, according to district records.

In December 2009, then-newly elected board members Rojas and Molina traveled with Rocia Pizano and Fernandez to the annual California School Boards Association Conference in San Diego, where they stayed at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina hotels.

On each trip, they spent money and billed the district for expenses ranging from valet parking and multiple room-service meals to newspaper subscriptions, bottled water and extra-bag airline fees.

The group, however, appeared to follow the rules on booze. They did not bill the district for alcoholic drinks that showed up on some of the receipts.

Fernandez said the board typically stays in the hotels that are recommended by the associations holding the events. He added that board members must take time off of work to go to the events. In the end, he said, the students benefit.

“I think our job is to prepare them for the world of work or college,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to do. But it isn’t free.”,

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance High pair hits it big on ‘Wheel’

Torrance High pair hits it big on ‘Wheel’


It’s safe to assume Ariel Dela Cruz and Katlyn VanNieuwenhuyse, both seniors at Torrance High School, will never forget the phrase “Boy Wizard Harry Potter.”

That’s the answer to the word puzzle that triggered their hot streak on an episode of “Wheel of Fortune” last week, where the duo cleaned house, netting $52,620 in a teen tournament.

“I was fine at the beginning of the show,” said Ariel, 17. “When I realized how much money we were getting, I could not stop shaking.”

To say the friends emerged victorious would be an understatement. The next runner-up took home just $5,000. The show aired across the nation on Wednesday, but it was actually taped in November.

Like so many adventures, theirs began on a whim. Last school year, the girls occasionally Skyped with the show playing in the background on TV. One day, in the spring, Ariel visited the “Wheel of Fortune” website and decided to sign them up as potential contestants. To her shock, a rep from the show called her up a few months later.

In August, the girls showed up for an audition at a hotel. Part of it involved playing a mock version of the game, but it was more about demonstrating their ability to be lively on camera – to shout key phrases such as the signature “Can I buy a vowel?”

“They wanted big reactions,” Katlyn said.

The girls were told they’d be called back in October if they were needed. When the month came and went without a call, they were crestfallen. But there’s an old saying that a watched kettle never boils. In early November, after the friends had moved on, the call came.

Katlyn, 18, a water polo player, was participating in a match when she found out.

“I ran over to my coaches and started telling everyone,” she said. “I was so happy.”

Later that month, they made the half-hour commute to Sony Studios in Culver City for the taping. The girls were stunned by the lasting good looks of the show’s mainstay personalities, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, both of whom began their stints with “Wheel of Fortune” in the early 1980s.

“He looks great – even up close,” Ariel said, adding that White gave them a victory hug after the match. “He makes sure you’re really calm about it. That you’re not tense.”

Of course, that’s easy for him to say.

During the bonus round, with thousands of dollars on the line, Team Torrance struggled with a two-word phrase.

Katlyn wrongly guessed “baking pan.” Ariel knew she had to come up with something, but blanked out. Finally, she uttered a Hail Mary answer: “waxing man.” Alas, the answer was “moving van.” The answer would have netted them $30,000 more.

On Thursday, classmates were congratulatory, but they razzed Ariel about that one. Even her first-period teacher joined in. “He came up to me and gave me this little note, and it said, `Congratulations, waxing man,”‘ she said with a laugh.

The girls will split the winnings, which won’t arrive until June. Included in the $52,000 prize is a $10,000 trip for four to the Turks and Caicos Islands near the Bahamas. That leaves about $20,000 each for spending cash.

Perhaps as a sign of these lean times, both girls have practical plans for their earnings. Both intend to save much of it for college.

“Most people probably think every girl just wants a shopping spree, but I really want to save a majority for later in life,” Ariel said. “Of course, I’ll treat myself and, of course I’m going to give money to my parents and family.”

As for Katlyn, her 2001 Nissan Sentra is in need of some repair work.

Their only regret about appearing on the show is that they can’t ever do it again.

“I want to do more game shows,” Katlyn said. “It was so fun. It felt cool to be on TV. We got our little 15 minutes of fame.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Gay Lennox teacher blasts school bullying

Gay Lennox teacher blasts school bullying

 Lennox Middle School teacher Robert Collins claims to have filed at least 15 complaints with the school district about being bullied, mostly by students, because he is gay. Prior to the school board meeting, Collins fills out a speaker form so he can address the board.
Lennox Middle School teacher Robert Collins claims to have filed at least 15 complaints with the school district about being bullied, mostly by students, because he is gay. Prior to the school board meeting, Collins fills out a speaker form so he can address the board.

Stories are everywhere about kids getting bullied by other kids on the playground. But what is the best course of action when the target of the taunting is a teacher?

Lennox Middle School history teacher Robert Collins is openly gay and says he is fed up with years of anti-gay slurs.

Usually, he says, it happens as he’s walking past a group of boys, only to hear a voice in the pack calling him a “fag,” or worse. On at least one occasion, he says, the incident felt to him like a physical threat.

Last Tuesday, Collins and a contingent of teachers brought their concerns to the Lennox school board. They charge that the district – which has historically been an early adopter of anti-bullying curriculum – has been largely silent when it comes to harassment of gay students and teachers.

Specifically, they are asking for more teacher training on how to address anti- gay bullying at not just the middle school, but also the five elementary schools and the charter high school. They say that students, too, have been the targets of torment.

“I venture to say that if the complainant were a different protected class — perhaps a woman being sexually harassed, an African-American being racially targeted or a disabled person being mocked — the district would take on the issue more seriously,” said Tamara Premsriath, co- human rights chair of the Lennox teachers union, speaking to the board on Collins’ behalf.

Lennox officials say they are constrained by confidentiality laws from publicly discussing the specific case. They say that Tuesday night’s meeting triggered an internal investigation to examine the most recent claims made by Collins, who has filed 20 complaints against the district over the years.

On a broader note, the Lennox controversy raises the question of how middle schools — which cater to an impressionable age group — should address matters pertaining to gay rights. It also brings into focus a challenging question for gay teachers of younger students: Is it a good idea to “come out” to them?

Situated beneath the flight path of the Los Angeles International Airport, the K-8 Lennox school system is considered an inner-city district. The vast majority of the students at its seven schools are Latino and qualify for free or reduced- price lunch. Schools within the district have long been the target of break-ins, and the mile- by-mile unincorporated area has a history of gang violence.

For all of the hardships of its students, though, the Lennox district has a reputation for taking a proactive approach to confronting issues of discipline and bullying.

In the early 2000s, it was a pioneer in adopting the “character counts” curriculum that stresses a handful of ethical values such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility and fairness. To this day, Lennox is widely considered a model “character counts” district.

In 2008-09, it purchased an anti-bullying curriculum, called Olweus, meant to permeate every classroom of the school. The district also celebrates a “no name calling” week, which is advertised in newsletters and on school marquees.

“I’d like to think that we’re very forward-thinking in investing time towards the anti-bullying efforts,” said Cesar Morales, the district’s director of personnel.

But on the matter of gay harassment, the teachers union charges that it wasn’t until Collins filed multiple complaints that the district got around to addressing the issue. This month, for the first time, the school brought the gay-rights organization GLIDE (Gays and Lesbians Initiating Dialogue for Equity) to give presentations to students about anti-gay bullying. GLIDE also has provided training sessions for the school’s teachers.

Judy Chiasson, a founder of GLIDE who participated in the Lennox training, praised the district.

“Lennox was wonderful,” she said. “They wanted to promote a school environment where people felt safe and respected. This really reflects the leadership. … The way to judge the school is not what happened, but how they respond to it.”

Collins and the teachers union say that while the presentations were a good start, they’re not enough.

“We haven’t done any training at the elementary or high schools,” Collins said. “That’s really what we’re asking for, is training for all teachers.”

At the meeting, he told the board that he may file a civil rights lawsuit. Collins charges that the district is not complying with Assembly Bill 537, which protects California’s public students and school employees against discrimination and harassment. In 2000, sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the existing nondiscrimination policy.

“I believe our complaint system is a complete – I will use the word – joke,” he told the board.

Collins, a man of slightly above average height and thinning gray hair, has been a teacher at Lennox Middle School for more than 20 years. He’s been out of the closet for 10 or 15 years. He typically tells his students about his sexual orientation on the first day of school.

“I say, `In our classroom, we are going to respect everybody, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. I want you to know that I’m gay, and we need to respect gay people at our school, too.”‘

Collins, who is on medical leave, said that in a typical year he is the recipient of 15 gay slurs from students. He added that in only one case has the harassment been from one of his own students.

Although Collins and the union are making specific demands of the district, the nature of his complaint centers every bit as much on a general feeling that his superiors don’t take him seriously.

In the early years, he said, administrators were genuinely puzzled by his complaints, saying “boys will be boys,” or that they themselves used to play games like “smear the queer.” Now, he said, even though the school has adopted some programs in response to his complaints, he believes school officials treat him like a nuisance, or even an enemy.

“My principal (Debra Johnson), she’ll talk over me, roll her eyes at me, or just stare at me,” he said. “Sometimes she just stops talking completely.”

Collins went even further in his comments to the Lennox school board, describing her response to his complaints as “hostile.”

Johnson did not return a call requesting a comment for this story.

Collins said that the harassment usually comes in the form of insults hurled in the halls as he walks past. But occasionally, a student will start a rumor, or say vile things about what Collins does with his husband. (Collins has had a domestic partner for 13 years. They are raising a 3-year-old boy.)

Once, Collins said, an incident had him feeling concerned for his own safety. A few years ago, he said, after working late, Collins was walking back to his car at night in the parking lot when he heard a group of middle- and high- school teens behind him, yelling slurs.

“I thought, `If I turn around and confront them, I’m not sure what’s going to happen,”‘ he said. “I walked to my car and drove off. That’s when I realized, `Wow, this could be more than just words.”‘

Collins said anti-gay slurs are also aimed at students. He said an elementary school teacher told him of a fourth- or fifth-grade student who is a frequent target.

“He’s perceived as being gay,” he said.

Collins said such teasing recently prompted a gay high school student to quit attending the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy.

Cindy Freeman, a member of the state’s Middle School Education Council – a subdivision of the Association of California School Administrators – said gay slurs are especially common in middle schools.

“They get such a charge out of saying `fag’ or `that’s so gay,”‘ said Freeman, herself a principal at Mira Loma Middle School in Riverside.

The flip side, she said, is that middle school students are extremely teachable; by high school, it’s more difficult to change their behavior. This underscores the urgency of nipping the problem in the bud, she said.

“This is the year they do that – yell out `faggot’ and think it’s funny,” she said. “And then, boom, they are in the principal’s office, where they are told, `Whoa, you can’t say that.”‘

At Mira Loma, Freeman conducts three fireside chats a year with her students to address bullying.

Freeman said she, too, has a gay teacher who, even though he is discreet about it, has been harassed by students.

She said she treats these incidents pretty much the same way she does those in which a student is bullied. After an investigation, the student and his or her parents are called in. The student is often asked to write a letter of apology and is usually suspended.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Lennox teachers union adopted a tone that at times was provocative.

Premsriath, the union’s co-human rights chair, opened her remarks by calling Lennox school board member Marisol Cruz a “wetback,” saying Morales “sells oranges by the freeway,” that Assistant Superintendent Brian Johnson is the “white devil” and that new Superintendent Fred Navarro is a “coconut.”

“Pretty uncomfortable, huh? Extremely offensive, right? Horrible and disgusting, no?” she said. “Did any of you in this room want to stop me? I truly hope so. …

“My friend and colleague Robert Collins is a victim of hurtful slurs very much like these. He is not a child, and he can speak up for himself. And he has spoken up. Yet very little has changed as a result of his complaints.”

There is some disagreement among experts about how gay teachers should “come out” to middle school students.

Freeman said she wouldn’t recommend doing so on the first day of school, as Collins does.

“You want to build a relationship,” she said. “It kind of opens the door (for teasing) – not that it excuses anything.”

But Carolyn Laub, executive director of the national Gay- Straight Alliance Network, disagreed.

“I applaud the teacher for coming out at the beginning of the school year to his students,” she said. “We shouldn’t teach young people that someone’s difference is something they should hide.”

Chiasson of GLIDE said the rules for gay teachers can’t be different from the rules for straight teachers.

“You can’t tell a straight teacher `never ever tell your students that you’re married or have children,”‘ she said. “But I think the knee-jerk (reaction) people have is they sexualize homosexuality, and they romanticize heterosexuality.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Superintendent’s Salary Raises Eyebrows

‘Magnificent’ deal outrages Centinela Valley teachers

Serving 6,800 students, the struggling Centinela Valley high school district straddling Lawndale and Hawthorne is about 1 percent the size of the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District.

And yet, the employment contract for its superintendent, Jose Fernandez, is about as lucrative as that for LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who presides over the second-largest school district in the United States.

To be fair, Cortines has made a political point of accepting an austere salary by LAUSD standards. He takes home $250,000, even though the position normally pays $300,000. He receives no stipends.

Officially, Fernandez’s salary is set at nearly $199,000, plus his annual longevity bonus adds about $18,000 to that total. With stipends, his yearly total is $241,000 – just $9,000 shy of what Cortines earns.

The subject of Fernandez’s three-year contract has been a sore spot with teachers ever since it was ratified by a newly elected school board one year ago. But last week, the South Bay Teachers Union upped the ante, publicly lambasting Fernandez in its December newsletter about not only his contract, but also his personal financial woes.

The issue comes at a sensitive time for public servants and educators in California. Already battered by the lousy economy, school districts across the state are expecting another storm, with Gov.-elect Jerry Brown saying last week that the enormity of the current budget deficit is “unprecedented in my lifetime.”

For its part, the teachers union in Centinela Valley has an ax to grind. Specifically, members are upset that the district this year involuntarily transferred 15 percent of all its teachers from one to another of the district’s three high schools: Lawndale, Hawthorne and Leuzinger. The union believes the move was retaliatory, and has filed an unfair labor practice with the state Public Employee Relations Board. The case is pending.

As for the newsletter, it spotlights the provision in Fernandez’s contract that entitles him to receive a housing loan from the school district. Specifically, the loan would come with a fixed 2 percent interest rate and give him 40 years to pay it off.

The amount of the loan could go as high as 150 percent of the average cost of homes in the ZIP code in which he’d like to buy. So if he wanted to purchase a home in a place where the average cost is $1 million, he’d be entitled to a loan of $1.5million. (LAUSD’s Cortines declined to accept a housing allowance.)

“When you look at the economy and look at the community – this is a struggling community,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of the South Bay United Teachers. “(Fernandez) could choose to live in Manhattan Beach, and the district would be on the hook for millions of dollars. … How on earth is that in the best interest of students?”

By one local real-estate professional’s count, the terms of the loan are “magnificent.”

“There’s nothing like that available to anyone, anyplace,” said Warren Snyder, co-owner of Carriage Realty & American Broker Loans in Rolling Hills Estates. “I wish I had a lender that would offer those terms to my clients. I could be a millionaire again.”

Snyder said it’s more typical for lenders to offer loans with a 5 percent interest rate, 30-year amortization schedule and in an amount not to exceed 97percent of the cost of the house.

Fernandez, normally an accessible and approachable public figure, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

His supporters point to how he has played a key role in turning the district around from the brink of bankruptcy. Test scores at the district – one of the lowest-performing in Los Angeles County – have improved over the past year. Unlike many nearby districts, Centinela Valley did not endure widespread teacher layoffs last year. And the district, under his watch, has successfully floated two construction bonds since 2008 for $98 million each.

“We’ve had some success,” school board President Hugo Rojas said.

District officials say Fernandez has not exercised the home-loan option. Public records put Fernandez’s home address in the ZIP code of Ladera Heights, which is widely known as the “black Beverly Hills.” (Fernandez is not black.)

Fernandez isn’t the highest- paid superintendent in the South Bay. That distinction belongs to Steven Keller of the K-12 Redondo Beach school district, serving 8,400 students. While Keller’s base salary sits at $230,441, annual stipends bump up the total to nearly $247,000, said Nancy Billinger, the district assistant superintendent of human resources. (Keller has frozen his scheduled raises in each of the past three years. This has meant a net loss of $79,673, she said.)

As for Fernandez, another unique provision in his contract is the one requiring a super-majority of board members – four out of the five – to fire him.

The board approved the contract unanimously about a year ago. In addition to Rojas, it includes Maritza Molina, Rocio Pizano, Gloria Ramos and Sandra Suarez.

Three of them – Rojas, Molina and Pizano – had just been sworn in. They are the same three whose campaigns for election in 2009 were largely financed by a construction company named TELACU.

They prevailed over the candidates favored by the teachers union. In its sharply worded December newsletter, the union derides them as the “bored majority,” and accuses them, in so many words, of being a rubber stamp.

“The `Bored’ will not read any material provided to them for themselves,” it states. “One was heard to say that it bores her.”

Perhaps lending some credence to this criticism is Rojas’ response to the contract. Asked last week about the super- majority provision, he said “that is news to me.” Rojas also said he was unfamiliar with the details of the housing provision.

The newsletter also mentions that Fernandez filed for personal bankruptcy in June. Goins said she believes this to be relevant because the school board has entrusted him with an unusual amount of power.

“It’s troublesome because you would expect checks and balances and there are none,” she said. “Not only does it speak to his ability to manage, but it also speaks to your own vulnerability when entrusted with millions of dollars.”

Rojas said he takes exception to the “disrespectful” tone of the union’s criticism.

“You don’t do those kinds of things if you want to work with another person,” said Rojas, who previously served on the Hawthorne school board. “The proper way to work with the superintendent is you sit down, establish goals and then hold an evaluation to hold him accountable on performance.”

One board member said she has regrets. Sandra Suarez said she wishes she’d paid closer attention to the document she was approving.

“I have a degree in art – I’m not a business person,” she said. “Now I can see where he gave himself way too much power. If that ever happens again on a contract, I have learned. I don’t care whether I’m a business major or not, I’m going to examine that.”

In addition to Fernandez’s base salary of $198,938, his additional compensation includes:

A 9 percent “per annum” bonus for longevity because he’d served the district in other capacities. This amounts to about $18,000 a year.

$1,000 monthly ($12,000 annually) in out-of-pocket expenses without receipts.

$2,500 annually for a post-graduate degree.

$600 a month ($7,200 annually) for auto expenses.

$200 a month ($2,400 annually) for cell phone expenses.

An annual salary increase by an amount “not less than the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Los Angeles County.”

Reimbursement for travel expenses any time he travels more than 50 miles outside of the district.

Thirty days of vacation and 24 sick days.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Don’t Fence Them In: Urban Schools Take Down Fencing in Sign of Gentler Times

A fence is more than just a physical barrier – it can also be a symbol, and, let’s face it, a bit of a downer.

As such, the removal this summer of the wrought-iron fences in front of Leuzinger , Hawthorne and Lawndale high schools in the Centinela Valley school district seems to signify a more peaceful era.

And, school officials are hoping, a new day for Centinela Valley’s struggling schools.

“When students ask where the fencing went, I say, ‘Do you go to a school or a prison?”‘ said Ryan Smith, the new principal at Leuzinger High School. “Symbolically, we’re saying we want to be more inviting to students and the city of Lawndale.”

Erected during the racially tense and violent era of the mid-1990s, the fencing has come down during what district officials are hoping is a period of transition.

The district is struggling to boost chronically abysmal test scores that have purportedly left one school – Leuzinger – under threat of a state takeover.

Meanwhile, tension has been simmering between the teachers union and administration over an inter-school shuffling of teachers. A formal grievance process is under way.

But the district seems to be making modest progress.

Earlier this month, test scores released by the state showed Leuzinger making significant gains, though the school’s scores remain quite low.

The 8-foot fences went up during a turbulent period for Los Angeles County, around the time of the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating. Crime rates were soaring, race riots were all too frequent and gang violence had a way of spilling onto campuses.

On at least two occasions during that era, Centinela Valley students were wounded by gunfire on or near their school grounds.

Superintendent Jose Fernandez says that’s all ancient history.

“We have very peaceful schools,” he said. “Many years ago, in the 1990s, things were rough. Unfortunately, sometimes perception and reality take a while to catch up to each other.”

To be sure, not all the fencing has been removed. Much of it has been relocated to inside campuses.

Other portions along the perimeter have been left in place for the same purpose. But in the most prominently viewed areas of the schools – the front of Leuzinger High School on Rosecrans Avenue, for instance – the barriers are no more.

The first to go was the one in front of Leuzinger High. Crews removed part of it in the spring and the rest of it over the summer. The walls in front of Hawthorne and Lawndale schools came down just before the first day of school.

The security presence on the campuses is unusually robust.

In 2009-10, the school district went so far as to create its own security division, hiring a director who trains and oversees some 30 officers and seven substitutes. On any given day at each campus, five to nine officers are on-site, zooming about on stand-up motorized scooters. In addition, each campus is assigned an armed police officer or sheriff’s deputy.

The unarmed security officers patrol the campuses all night, with a night shift stretching from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m.. In addition, at least a dozen hidden cameras are embedded on every campus.

The entire security operation is expensive. Last year, Centinela Valley spent more than $2.3 million on the department, which amounts to about 3.3 percent of the school district’s entire budget.

But Fernandez says it’s worth the expense.

“We’ve captured people trying to do bad things,” he said, noting several incidents in which overnight burglars – including a man posing as a custodian – have been apprehended.

As for on-campus troublemaking, suspensions last school year were down by about a third from 2005-06, but expulsions doubled in that time, to nearly 140.

Top school officials attribute this to heightened vigilance.

“When students know there is going to be a uniform policy within the district, and they know the consequences will be severe, they begin to avoid behaviors that would get them in trouble,” said Jim Tarouilly, the district’s new director of pupil services.

Though teachers and administrators seem to be at constant loggerheads, the fence removal is one topic on which they agree – for the most part.

“I never was a big fan of the fencing,” said teachers union President Betty Setterlund. “On the other hand, I recognize children are not victims when they are inside the fences . … But we’re not seeing as many gangs anymore.”

Back in the early to mid-1990s, the area served by Centinela Valley schools seemed to be a much rougher place.

Tensions between black and Latino gangs ran high.

In 1993, Leuzinger senior Justin Sagato was shot in the shoulder on campus after a lunchtime argument with reputed gang members.

In 1995, a plan to let students out early due to rumors of an impending riot backfired, and a massive fight broke out that led to 30 arrests and left a 15-year-old student with a bullet in the leg. (The shooting happened a few blocks away.) Back then, school officials used to grease the wrought-iron fences to keep students from scaling them.

Current Leuzinger senior Jamila Johnson said she gives the campus an “A” grade for safety.

“We have cameras everywhere,” said Jamila, a student in the multimedia career academy and a football cheerleader.

She added that she noticed the absence of the fencing right away.

“When the fences were here it kind of looked like we were locked in,” she said. “It looks less like a prison and more welcoming.”

rob. kuznia