Principal claims school board member was ‘in my face’ over trip to Disneyland
A dispute between a Lennox school board member accused of abusing her power and the high school principal at Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is escalating, and the situation could come to a head tonight.
Speaking up for the first time since the controversy erupted in June, Lennox School Board member Mercedes Ibarra said widespread rumors that she pressured Lennox Academy Principal Armando Mena to allow her credit-deficient daughter to participate in last year’s graduation ceremony aren’t true.
“I would like him to show proof in public where I pressured him,” she said. “Because when you accuse someone, you need to have proof.”
Ibarra added that the uproar has taken a heavy toll on her family. She said the rumors have been particularly difficult for her younger daughter, who still attends the school.
“She cries every morning,” Ibarra said. “She doesn’t want to go.”
But Mena and his staff say they indeed were under pressure to rewrite the rules for the daughter of Ibarra, and not just on that one occasion. Last week, they provided more details about the long-simmering dispute.
Tonight the board will discuss the possibility of allowing Lennox Academy to break away from the K-8 district by becoming an independent charter. The high school, which was founded by Mena and a handful of others 11 years ago, is currently a charter school that operates under the authority of the school board and superintendent.
Because the meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. as a study session, the board isn’t expected to make a decision about whether to allow the school to secede. But the workshop could prove cathartic in a district that seems poised on the breaking point due to pent-up tensions resulting from a solid year’s worth of unprecedented political infighting.
At stake is the future of a school — the Lennox Academy — that is considered a nationwide model for preparing a high-poverty population for college. Long a fixture on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of best American high schools, the 500-student academy has always taken a strict approach when it comes to ensuring that students are on track for graduation.
“Students here have to take more credits than they would at a traditional high school,” said history teacher Rodney Michael. “Conversely, we’re able to get most of our students into four-year universities. The integrity of our programs are being compromised by favoritism.”
It’s unclear how the five-member board will vote on the matter, but historically Ibarra has been part of a slim majority bloc that also includes school board President Marisol Cruz and Sonia Saldana. And Ibarra is leaning against allowing the split.
Also opposed to it is the Lennox teachers union.
“The school was never designed to be an independent charter and there are too many unknowns for us to support such a rushed plan,” teachers union President Brian Guerrero said in a statement.
Regarding the school’s tradition of stringency on graduation privileges, Mena and his staff say that all changed when they started feeling pressure from above. Mena acknowledges that Ibarra didn’t directly strong-arm him to allow his daughter to walk the stage on June 8.
But he said he received firm direction from his supervisors, Superintendent Barbara Flores and her deputy, Kent Taylor, who both serve at the pleasure of Ibarra and the four other board members.
Flores did not return a call to her cellphone Monday to answer whether Ibarra applied any pressure on her. Ibarra says she did not pressure Flores.
“I have never pressured anyone,” she said.
However, Mena said Ibarra on at least two other occasions prior to Graduation Day had contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation.
The first confrontation happened in April, when every member of the senior class must give a presentation to a panel of teachers. The presentations — meant to mimic the rigor of defending a thesis — occur in public, with family members and friends in the audience.
Mena said he tries to attend as many presentations as possible, but can typically make it to maybe 20 of the 135 or so given. He did show up for the presentation put on by the niece of Cruz, the board president. Ibarra, who is friends with Cruz, was there, too. By Mena’s telling, Ibarra confronted him, demanding to know why he skipped her daughter’s presentation.
Ibarra admits she was upset, but not because he neglected to go to her daughter’s presentation.
“Mr. Mena just went to the presentations of the students that had straight As,” she said. “As a principal, he needs to show support to all the kids.”
The second dust-up was connected to the school’s annual grad-night celebration in May, in which seniors who qualify and a handful of faculty members go to Disneyland. A couple of weeks before the trip, Ibarra requested that her daughter be able to attend, even though she was short on credits.
An assistant principal at the school told her that her daughter did not qualify, but added that she could make an appeal before a panel of teachers. Ibarra chose to appeal. The panel unanimously decided against allowing Ibarra’s daughter to go, said Vanesa Mateu, a Spanish teacher and a member of the panel.
But with one caveat: Should their denial be overturned by the powers that be, the other five or so students who also didn’t qualify should get to go as well.
“There were secret meetings, between (Lennox Academy administrators), Kent Taylor and Dr. Flores,” she said. “Who would care? Which board member? Obviously, the one who has a daughter here.”
The appeal was overturned by the higher-ups, and, for the first time in the school’s history, all seniors were able to go to Disneyland regardless of their academic standing. What came next has become a topic of much intrigue in Lennox.
Mena said Ibarra and Cruz demanded to come with the students and chaperones to Disneyland — along with some of their children who weren’t in the graduating class. The board members requested to be taken on the school bus with the rest of the group. Ibarra and Cruz were reportedly late. After 25 minutes, the bus left without them, just as the two women were arriving. The women, Mena said, were furious.
“Cruz approached me and was in my face,” he said. “She demanded that I would be taking her in my own private vehicle.”
Mena said he arranged for them to be shuttled to the theme park by the school library technician. The technician, Oscar Cux, said under normal circumstances, he would have declined on the rationale that his shift was almost up.
“But he’s an amazing person to work for,” he said of Mena. “I could see the need in his eyes. Things were just overwhelming that day, with those ladies screaming at him and going ballistic.”
The third clash came in June, with the graduation ceremony. According to Ibarra, even though her daughter was short on credits, she was working hard to catch up via the school’s new online credit-recovery program. The goal was to walk the stage in her cap and gown. Ibarra said her daughter was making good headway when, a couple of days before the ceremony, the system crashed.
Mena, she said, phoned her daughter personally to tell her she could walk the stage, so long as she promised to make up the credits within two weeks of the June ceremony.
“I’m quoting exactly what he said,” Ibarra said. “He said: ‘I’ve seen that you worked hard, and I see you really want it. You deserve to walk.’ ”
The day after the June 8 ceremony, she added, the computer system was back up and running, and her daughter resumed her catch-up work.
“She finished in one week,” Ibarra said.
Mena said confidentiality laws prohibit him from commenting on the girl’s academic record. But he offered to discuss it in more detail if Ibarra was willing to sign a release form allowing him to divulge such information. She declined.
“I just want him to admit I never pressured him,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel comfortable signing a release form because her daughter already feels bad enough.
Although Mena could not discuss the academic record of Ibarra daughter’s, he and his staff vehemently insist that the online credit-recovery system never crashed.
So does Daniel Martin, one of a handful of students who was using the online recovery program to catch up on time. Martin said he was using it all the way up until the day before the event.
“The program, it never stopped — it was always on,” he said.
However, the IT department did reportedly discover — and fix — an intriguing glitch.
Lennox Academy officials say one user — Mena wouldn’t say who — had been logging onto the system using multiple computers simultaneously. That person was able to complete as many as 40-plus hours of instruction during a 24-hour period — a mathematical impossibility.
That glitch was corrected about two days before the graduation ceremony.
“They would log in under one computer just fine,” said Veronica Jimenez, a counselor at the school. “But if they logged in under a second one, the system would log them off (the first computer).”