Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties
In the latest twist of a saga that has roiled on all year, the embattled superintendent of the Lennox School District has written a letter accusing two school board members — once her two closest supporters — of overstepping their authority by trying to make personnel decisions over her objections and without the authority of the board majority.
The Aug. 6 letter from Superintendent Barbara Flores, which was obtained Monday by the Daily Breeze, says board members Marisol Cruz and Mercedes Ibarra maneuvered to make at least a half-dozen personnel changes on a day when she missed work due to an illness. On that day — Aug. 2 — Cruz and Ibarra allegedly directed the district’s deputy superintendent, Kent Taylor, to make the changes.
“The usurpation of my duties by two board members is a breach of contract,” Flores wrote. “I am seriously concerned about reprisals and retaliation from Ms. Cruz and Mrs. Ibarra and their aggressive tactics in the workplace.”
The letter goes on to quote Cruz saying, “I am the President of the Board and the sole authority and leader of the District.” Similarly, Flores quotes Ibarra as saying that she and Cruz “run the show” in the Lennox School District.
The letter by Flores, addressed to every board member, underscores the turmoil that is increasingly undermining the stability of the district’s leadership. Just a few months before, Cruz and Ibarra were the closest supporters of Flores, who has been a controversial presence in the district and on the board ever since her tenure began in July 2012.
Before Flores was hired, 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.
This summer, in the wake of last year’s turmoil, four of eight principals moved on.
But her supporters have credited her for giving parents more of a voice. Until now, those supporters have included Cruz, who declined to discuss the letter in much detail, other than to say that it is the product of a political environment during an election year.
“I brought her here; I fought for her,” Cruz said. “When I did that, I was a hero to some people. And now when I raise concerns regarding her performance, I become a corrupt official to those same people who applauded me for bringing her.”
As for the two board members’ alleged attempt to make unilateral personnel decisions, the most politically significant among them was a purported effort to reassign Armando Mena, principal of the school district’s charter high school, to Moffett Elementary School.
All that spring, the two women had been feuding with Mena, who leads the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy. Mena has said he was pressured to change school rules to allow Ibarra’s credit-deficient daughter to walk the stage at graduation as well as attend a grad night field trip to Disneyland. He also says the two board members had demanded that they be allowed to attend the field trip, and after the school bus left without them because they were 25 minutes late, Cruz had yelled in his face.
The letter from Flores doesn’t explicitly accuse Cruz and Ibarra of retaliation against Mena, but Mena himself has said that he believes the effort amounted to as much.
In any case, it’s unclear whether the letter will jeopardize Flores’ employment. Cruz said she believes Flores, who has been on medical leave for several weeks after getting in an automobile accident, has done a good job.
But she added: “I would just like to see her more present in the district. It’s hard to carry out your roles and responsibilities when you’re not present at the work site. I just want to get the job done.”
This past July, the board extended her contract by a year at a salary of $178,000.
Flores also accuses Cruz of having a conflict of interest related to the Nov. 5 election. Flores said the school district’s public relations officer — Adrian Alvarez, a district employee — is serving double duty as Cruz’s campaign manager.
Cruz said that isn’t true.
“He has nothing to do with the running of my campaign at all,” she said. “I don’t have a campaign manager.”
Ibarra declined to comment for this story.
Word of the letter first went public at a public meeting in August when one of the five board members, Juan Navarro — a political foe of Cruz and Ibarra and a critic of Flores — began reading it aloud during the open session of a well-attended board meeting. He was gaveled down by Cruz after a few sentences and the board immediately adjourned to closed session. Not long after, the Daily Breeze tried to obtain a copy by sending the district a public records act request.
In a response to the newspaper, the district has argued that the letter is not a public document that relates to public business, but rather is a “personal correspondence to the members of the governing board.” The response also said the letter — written on district letterhead — was composed by Flores on a computer at home, not on district-owned equipment.
On Monday, a copy of the letter arrived by mail at the Daily Breeze from an anonymous sender. Flores declined to comment other than to say she believes the letter is a private document, as it had been discussed in closed session.