This was the first in a series of stories about the dysfunction of a low-income school district whose leaders were using their influential positions to punish enemies and reward friends and family. The series was awarded first place by the California Newspaper Publishers Association for local-government coverage in the large-newspaper category.
Originally published on June 11, 2013
A Lennox school board member is under fire for reportedly pulling strings to allow her daughter to participate in her high school commencement ceremony even though she did not earn nearly enough credits to walk the stage this past weekend.
The tiny community has been buzzing all week with claims that the daughter of board member Mercedes Ibarra was able to enjoy senior privileges when she didn’t earn them at the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — a high-performing charter high school.
(Related story: More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar)
The school district refused to release the student’s academic records and Ibarra did not return calls from the Daily Breeze this week, but a colleague on the school board, Juan Navarro, confirmed the rumors are true.
Navarro said the privileges included not only walking the stage at graduation on Saturday, but also attending the annual GradNite celebration in Disneyland in May.
“Let’s not forget: When you become a board member, you’re not there just for your own child,” Navarro said. “You’re there for all the children. You can’t be asking favors or asking administrators for favors for your own children. That’s not right.”
Widely considered a model for serving disadvantaged student populations, Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is a consistent presence on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of top American high schools. In April, the school ranked 39th nationwide and sixth among schools in California.
In past years, Navarro and others say, administrators at the school have strictly enforced a rule enshrined in the school handbook: seniors who are significantly credit-deficient cannot participate in commencement or any senior activities. For whatever reason, that rule was thrown out for this year’s seniors, allowing Ibarra’s daughter and a handful of other students short on credits to partake.
In all, of the 135 students who participated in the ceremony, six hadn’t met the criteria, sources say.
The abuse-of-power accusation over graduation privileges is just the latest chapter in a saga of division this year in the Lennox School District, which has become a fractious environment since the July hiring of new Superintendent Barbara Flores.
Although Ibarra could not be reached for comment, the superintendent who works for her, Flores, returned calls from the Daily Breeze late Tuesday to issue a statement about the matter.
“As superintendent, my job is to protect the rights of every student,” she said. “After examining all the relevant factors, six students were allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony because they met the policy limit. Even board members’ children have rights. To elaborate beyond that would be to violate the privacy rights of every student.”
Asked if the directive came from Ibarra, Flores said no. Asked what led to the policy change, Flores declined to comment beyond what was in her statement.
Reached Tuesday, the school’s principal, Armando Mena, declined to comment, referring calls back to Flores.
But Navarro said he believes Ibarra and other higher-ups pressured the principal to change the rules.
“Mercedes didn’t do this alone,” he said. “She had to have the support of the superintendent and (deputy superintendent Kent) Taylor.”
School officials say Ibarra was involved in a similar situation a couple of years ago, at Lennox Middle School. Margaret Sanchez, a veteran assistant principal at the school who is retiring at the end of the year, said Ibarra asked administrators at the school to allow another of her children to participate in the school’s end-of-the-year promotion ceremony, even though the student hadn’t met the academic requirements. In that instance, Sanchez said, the administrators denied the request, and were backed by then-Superintendent Fred Navarro.
In another element of this year’s graduation furor, Ibarra and an ally on the board — President Marisol Cruz — publicly requested to attend the May 17 trip to Disneyland, and to ride in the same bus as the students. But the women were late for the bus, which left without them, Navarro said.
Sources say the board members then demanded that the school provide some other form of transportation, and were ultimately taken to Disneyland in a school van driven by a school employee.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Cruz declined to comment on the specific events, but said she doesn’t believe the Daily Breeze’s coverage of the district’s recent troubles has been fair.
“It’s just disappointing to continually hear negative slants being covered when not all the facts are there,” she said, declining to elaborate because she believes the academic record of Ibarra’s daughter is a private matter. (Ibarra’s daughter is 18.)
Cruz did say, in apparent defense of Ibarra, that “any mom would fight for her child.”
“Why should we break a student’s right because their mom is a board member?” she asked.
The dust-up over the graduation activities is just the latest controversy to roil the tiny district this year.
Situated directly beneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox School District serves a highly disadvantaged student population. The district — which is composed of five elementary schools, one middle school and the charter high school — has racked up accolades over the years for its success relative to other districts in California with similar demographics.
But the district this year has become a political battlefield, with factions lining up for and against the controversial new superintendent. Before Flores was hired in July, the 65-year-old veteran professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino had never worked as a school administrator. Critics say she has led with a heavy hand, hiring friends as consultants and firing or demoting anyone seen as a potential detractor.
Supporters say she has improved relations between the administration and teachers, and done a good job of shielding teachers from cuts.
“We’ve been able to keep 20-to-1,” said Cruz, referring to the once widely adopted practice in California of keeping class sizes at or below 20 students in grades kindergarten through third grade. “Nobody in the county has been able to pull that off but we did.”
Mirroring the divisiveness districtwide, the Lennox school board has been split on Flores’ leadership, with a slim majority in support. Navarro and Ibarra are on opposite sides of that dividing line.
The tension publicly erupted in November, when Brian Johnson, an administrator with 35 years of experience in Lennox, was placed on administrative leave. In a memo circulated to district employees about his departure, Flores — without mentioning Johnson by name — wrote that construction money might have been misspent, and, if so, “any parties” involved would “subject to legal action.”
Long-timers in the district came to Johnson’s vigorous defense, vouching for his integrity.
From that point on, the environment has been toxic, fraught with finger-pointing, rumors, accusations of nepotism and charges of retaliatory firings.
At times, the accusations have been nasty, suggesting an undercurrent of racial and class tensions. In February, a group of employees, in an anonymous complaint to the District Attorney’s Office that included a long list of allegations against the pro-Flores camp, accused Ibarra of not being a U.S. citizen or a resident of Lennox. Ibarra vehemently denied it, likening the accusations to claims made from the fringe that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen.
Late last month, a separate complaint was sent to the Fair Political Practices Commission. This one — also anonymous — alleged that Ibarra advocated to have her husband hired as a custodian. Indeed, the school board on Feb. 12 did vote to hire him as a substitute custodian. The complaint further alleges that Flores saw to it that he use a pseudonym. The minutes of that meeting list him as Francisco I. Perez.
“The Superintendent directed secretary and Human Resources Department to not use his official legal last name of ‘Ibarra’ so that it would not be noticeable,'” the complaint states. “The Board of Trustees took action and hired Mrs. Mercedes Ibarra’s husband, not connecting the two because of the different last name on the agenda.”
The accuser believes the act violates the a conflict-of-interest law — Government Code 1090 — which states that elected officials are not to have any financial stake in a contract made by them or by the board on which they sit.
The FPPC received the complaint, but will not pursue it because the Government Code that was allegedly broken (1090) is not within the agency’s jurisdiction, said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s enforcement division, in an email to the Daily Breeze.
“You may be interested to know we are sponsoring a bill, AB 1090, to give us some jurisdiction over this,” he added.
Meanwhile, the high school graduation ceremony has been generating enough buzz in Lennox to reach the ears of other graduating students, a couple of whom called the Daily Breeze to voice their displeasure.
“I don’t know how it happened or why, but I do want to say it’s insulting to me,” said Laura Rosales, who graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. This fall, Rosales will attend Cal State Long Beach.
Today, Lennox Middle School will hold its own promotion ceremony for eighth-graders moving on to high school. Apparently the district isn’t extending the same pardon to the credit-deficient students there. Staff members at the school confirmed that 70 of the 520 students in the class will not be able to participate in the ceremony.