Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil
Voter turnout for the recent race to fill three seats on the Lennox school board might have been low, but the election results were pointed — and the ramifications are significant.
In a single night, voters issued a referendum on a year of extreme turmoil in the tiny, low-income K-8 district tucked in the shadow of the Los Angeles International Airport. The Lennox electorate effectively fired the two incumbents — Marisol Cruz and Sonia Saldana — who were part of the three-member majority that brought about much controversial change.
Over the course of the last year in Lennox, a narrow majority of the board has ushered in a polarizing superintendent, received a reprimand by the county’s district attorney for holding illegal secret meetings, presided over an organization that has been riven by politics and denied the request of the community’s prized charter high school — Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — to break away from the district.
Now, the new board makeup — which takes effect next month — raises intriguing questions about the fate of that superintendent, Barbara Flores, who has been on medical leave since late August.
The new power base also raises the possibility of a do-over in the secession effort of the Lennox Academy, whose teachers and students are said to have campaigned vigorously against the two fallen incumbents.
In addition to ousting Cruz and Saldana, voters on Nov. 5 also re-elected an incumbent who was often on the losing end of those majority votes. Juan Navarro has been a soft-spoken but steady critic of the district’s recent direction.
“The voters spoke up,” he said. “Not only the voters, but our youth.”
Also, in a telling indication of the power conferred upon parents by the parent-trigger law pioneered by California in 2010, Lennox voters picked Shannon Thomas Allen for the school board. She is a leader of a grass-roots parent group in Lennox that came about largely as a result of that law, which enables a majority of a school’s parents to replace the leadership.
But the strangest outcome of Election Day was who finished in first place. Sergio Hernandez Jr., who billed himself with the County Recorder’s Office as a teacher and school administrator, breezed to victory, even though nobody seems to know who he is.
During the campaign, Hernandez did not show up for several forums and campaign events. Neither of the other winners has met him. He also did not return multiple calls from the Daily Breeze.
And yet Hernandez took 21.7 percent of the vote. The first runner up, Allen, garnered 18.1 percent; Navarro, the incumbent, collected 17.1 percent.
Despite Hernandez’s low profile, his opinion about the hot topics of the day in Lennox suddenly matter. For instance, with one member of that old board majority — Mercedes Ibarra — in the middle of her term, Hernandez could wind up the swing vote on some weighty issues.
For now, the most pressing question is what becomes of Flores, who seems to have been hanging onto power by a thread.
The 2012-13 school year began with the hiring of Flores, largely at the urging of Cruz. Flores had been a longtime professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino and a trustee on the San Bernardino City Unified school board — to which she was just re-elected last Tuesday. But she’d never been a school administrator.
The first public controversy erupted about a year ago, when Flores sent out a mass internal email that all but accused Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Brian Johnson — a 35-year Lennox school district employee — of mismanaging public funds. He was later quietly cleared by a district-hired auditor of any wrongdoing.
The backlash from that move was furious.
Flores’ detractors accused her of hiring friends to serve as consultants, fostering an inappropriately cozy relationship with the district’s employee unions, spending large amounts of public money on attorneys and over-compensating for her inexperience by taking vindictive measures against subordinates. They sent a letter detailing these and other allegations to the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
For a time, Flores could count on the backing of her three supporters on the five-member board. But she eventually had a falling out with two of them — Cruz and Ibarra. Now, Cruz and Saldana have been voted out of office. This means all three of Flores’ original supporters have either been ousted or — in the case of Ibarra — are no longer on the best of terms with her.
However, Allen — the parent volunteer — last year was a Flores supporter from the sidelines. Asked last week to share her thoughts on Flores, Allen said, “I would love to see her back (from medical leave) and engaging with the board — not only the board, but with the community.”
Navarro was more direct about his position on Flores.
“I’m not happy with her performance,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with a new superintendent who’s not going to target our employees, who’s not going to have any personal agendas and vendettas against anyone, and who’s going to look for the overall well being of all students in the school district. Not just a few.”
Allen and Navarro favor allowing the academy to become an independent charter, meaning the Lennox school board and administration would lose virtually all authority over the high school.
Last month, the board rejected the academy’s bid for independence in a 3-2 vote. Now, a board majority apparently favors the bid.
Allen has been an organizer with a group that calls itself the parents union. The Lennox parents received training from a regional organization called Parent Revolution, which formed to lobby for the parent trigger law. Back in 2012, the Lennox group, with Allen as a member, demanded changes at Lennox Middle School, where they felt that instruction for English learners wasn’t strong enough. The school now has new leadership.
“I know there is a big controversy about the parent trigger law,” she said. “We never wanted to trigger our middle school. We took the trigger law and used it as leverage so we could get what we wanted for English language learners.”
On her election to the board, the mother of six said she still can’t believe her good fortune. But what she lacked in union endorsements and campaign contributions, Allen made up for in door-to-door canvassing.
“I so appreciate the community of Lennox for listening to me,” she said, “and for saying, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’”