Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Pay to Play Politics in Tiny School District

Pay to Play: Construction firm TELACU bankrolling Centinela Valley school board campaigns, receiving millions in contracts


Feb. 19, 2014

For a couple of moms from working-class families hoping to retain their seats on the Centinela Valley school board, it was a stark lesson in machine politics.

In a small room at the Proud Bird restaurant near LAX, a group of maybe 15 had gathered to support board members Sandra Suarez and Gloria Ramos. Nearly everyone sharing finger foods that day was connected to a community development corporation called TELACU, which bills itself as the fifth largest Latino-owned business in California.

There were architects, lawyers, consultants. And high-powered figures from TELACU itself. Everyone in attendance wrote out two checks for $99 — the highest amount that can go unreported in campaign filings — one for Suarez, one for Ramos.

Donors included President and CEO David Lizarraga, who at the time was chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and has since been appointed by President Barack Obama to a key administrative post in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Also included was John Clem, the TELACU executive who heads up all the construction projects in the Centinela district, as well as the wives of both men.

All for two women in a tiny district that oversees just three comprehensive high schools in Lawndale and Hawthorne.

“It was kind of odd,” Suarez said. “They were giving us money — I’m not used to any of that. … To tell you the truth, I didn’t even realize they were giving for us at first.”

The event was a window into the political machine that has been picking leaders in the tiny district since 2008. In the two past contested elections, TELACU has poured large amounts of money into campaigns to elect their favored candidates who almost always win.

TELACU won, too. Since 2008, the TELACU-backed Centinela Valley school board has put two construction bond measures on the ballot totaling nearly $200 million. Voters approved both, and TELACU was awarded contracts to manage the construction projects.

Clem, president of TELACU Construction Management, did not return calls from the Daily Breeze on Tuesday and Wednesday. But Centinela Valley officials have pointed out that as a result of the two successful bond measures — one in 2008, another in 2010 — major face-lifts have occurred or are in the pipeline for all three campuses. The projects have replaced old, sometimes crumbling facilities with state-of-the-art classroom wings, media centers, offices and commons areas.

Critics, on the other hand, say the whole thing smacks of a money grab for the interested parties at the expense of the taxpayers.

“The problem with Centinela Valley, and so many school districts and community colleges, is that they have become bond-passing machines that milk the public to pay for lavish construction projects, outrageous salaries and terrible loans,” said Mariano Vasquez, the plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing a recently passed parcel tax floated by Centinela Valley and four feeder elementary school districts.

“This causes a very harmful misallocation of scarce resources and capital that slowly brings ruin to the town.”

In recent weeks, Superintendent Jose Fernandez — who took the helm roughly at the same time that TELACU began exerting its influence in Centinela — has said publicly that the district intends to try for a third construction bond. This announcement came just days before a Feb. 9 story in the Daily Breeze revealed that Fernandez amassed more than $663,000 in total compensation last year. At least $215,000 of that came from a one-time expense, but Fernandez — in exercising another generous provision of his contract — also has taken a $910,000 loan from the school district to purchase a home in Ladera Heights. He has 40 years to pay it off, at 2 percent interest — an unusually favorable set of terms.

TELACU first demonstrated its ability to influence the outcomes of Centinela Valley school board elections in 2009. The company donated $28,000 to a political action committee called Citizens for Better Schools, according to campaign finance reports obtained from the Los Angeles County Register-Recorder’s Office. Citizens For Better Schools, in turn, dished out $55,000 to purchase mailers and other promotional materials touting three candidates: Rocio Pizano, Hugo Rojas and Maritza Molina.

(By comparison, Pizano’s election committee raised $5,000, according to the documents. Rojas and Molina apparently raised no money.)

Pizano was an incumbent. But Rojas, a karate instructor and former Hawthorne school board member with at least two DUIs on his record — and Molina — then a 23-year-old recent college graduate — ousted two incumbents with education credentials. One of them, Rudy Salas, is the principal at Hawthorne Middle School. The other, Frank Talavera, is an educator who at the time was teaching at Gardena High School. Both opposed an effort to put a bond measure on the ballot in 2008.

Sources say those two board members were controversial as well and had a vindictive streak. Salas declined to be interviewed; Talavera couldn’t be reached.

In his ballot statement that year, Talavera wrote that his experience “will help me guide the district in a more positive direction where students are the PRIORITY and not buildings or superficial fix-ups.”

TELACU’s preferred candidates were triumphant. In December 2009 — a month after the election — the new school board unanimously approved Fernandez’s generous employment contract. Not long after, the board voted to put another $98 million bond measure on the ballot. In November 2010, the voting public gave its assent.

The initiative raised eyebrows on the Lawndale City Council.

“I think it’s outrageous they do this in low-income communities,” Councilman Larry Rudolph said. “What are we getting for it? I don’t see anything except for these big fancy buildings. I don’t see how they are going to make the kids any smarter.”

Rudolph added that in his own elections, he does not accept campaign contributions. “I wouldn’t want to be in debt to anybody,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything but vote my conscience.”

Although it is common for big construction companies to make financial contributions for the passage of bond measures, it is rare for them to put up money for individual school board candidates — at least in the South Bay.

“In our case, I doubt anybody got a dime,” said Jane Diehl, a former longtime school board member in the Redondo Beach Unified School District. Diehl was on the board when voters in the district approved a $145 million construction bond measure in 2008. That project has been managed by the company Balfour Beatty.

“Most of the school board elections in Redondo are pretty sparse,” she added, saying candidates there generally raise around $8,000. “If you want to win, you gotta walk” and knock on doors.

Mark Steffen, president of the Torrance school board, said he believes the same is true in Torrance Unified, where voters approved a $355 million pair of bond measures in 2008.

Balfour Beatty manages those projects as well.

“They’ve never offered, nor have I sought out dollars from them,” Steffen said.

In the Centinela Valley school district — which oversees Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools — TELACU hasn’t been the only heavy contributor to election campaigns.

In 2011, the investment firm Piper Jaffray of Minneapolis contributed $25,000 to Citizens for Better Schools, donating much of that to TELACU’s favored candidates. The two firms have combined forces elsewhere in support of school bond measures, including a 2010 bid in Claremont. Piper Jaffray contributed $25,000 to that campaign, and TELACU $20,000.

Also contributing to Centinela’s 2010 effort to get a construction bond measure passed were law firms such as Dannis, Woliver, Kelley — which has a lucrative contract with the school district. (It donated $7,500.) Another law firm gave $5,000.

The event at the Proud Bird back in the summer of 2010 was a campaign fundraiser for the 2011 school board race. It was early in the game, and things wound up taking an unexpected twist — both Suarez and Ramos fell out of favor.

It so happens that Suarez is big on historic preservation. When it came to her attention that the bond measure called for knocking down much of Leuzinger High, she began to have doubts. By October 2010 — a few months after the fundraiser — she was fully opposed, and speaking out publicly.

It’s less clear why the construction company ended its support of Ramos. But she — unlike the other three members — was generally known for occasionally voicing dissent on district matters.

In any event, Citizens for Better Schools found two new candidates to support: banking executive Lorena Gonzalez, who was challenging Suarez; and Ugo Felizzola II, a 24-year-old financial analyst who was trying to unseat Ramos.

This time, the political action committee spent $82,000 on its campaign favoring those candidates. Once again, TELACU made a sizable donation; records show it contributed at least $10,000. (This was the race in which Piper Jaffray pitched in $25,000.)

Because none of that money went to the candidates directly, they did not have to report the support. The committee spent at least $26,486 on each candidate. The money paid for slate mailers, door hangers, brochures and campaign signs, among other things, according to documents.

A political consultant closely aligned with TELACU met with leaders of the teachers union to request that they endorse the two political newcomers. The union declined, opting instead to endorse nobody.

The effort to oust Suarez was a success; Ramos managed to eke out a victory over the young Felizzola.

Suarez says that prior to the election, Fernandez sometimes took her and other board members to fancy restaurants such as Houston’s in Manhattan Beach. The tab, she said, was often picked up by a law firm or by TELACU.

She later took her husband to Houston’s, not knowing the prices.

“When we looked at the menu, we realized what they were, and we looked at each other,” she said.

They ordered an appetizer, ate it quickly and left.

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings for daughter

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings so credit-deficient daughter can walk stage at graduation

Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. School board members, including Mercedes Ybarra, are seated at the far right end of the front row. Photo by Jeff Gritchen / Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

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.”

Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

(Related story: Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties)

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.

(Related story: Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil)

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.

Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen
Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

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.

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Feb. 3, 2012


Teachers and administrators at Palos Verdes High School were aware of the rumors swirling through the halls: a group of students were selling test answers to their peers.

But the breakthrough came when a teacher noticed that a normally strong student bombed a final, getting just a quarter of the answers correct.

Closer examination revealed that the answers the student bubbled in were an exact match for an exam that had been administered the prior year. The student had obtained the answers, and erroneously assumed that the teacher would use the same test two years in a row.

A police investigation then led to last week’s arrest of three 16-year-old boys accused of breaking into the school, hacking into their teachers’ computers and changing their grades. A little more than a week after the arrest, new details are emerging.

The case – along with a developing story in Torrance that is strikingly similar – is a sign of the times, underscoring the impressive level of technical prowess possessed by some of today’s teenagers, and how the knowledge they have can be used for ill.

It also raises interesting questions about the college prospects for students smart enough to hack into computers but dishonest enough to use that knowledge for the purpose of cheating.

The three juniors at Palos Verdes High all had GPAs at or above the 4.0 mark – although that was before they were docked for allegedly cheating.

“These kids had very bright futures,” P.V. High Principal Nick Stephany said. “At this point, who knows what’s going to happen.”

Authorities say the crime began with an old-fashioned break-in: The three boys allegedly picked the lock to a janitors’ office late at night when school was closed. They pocketed a master key, sneaked into classrooms, snatched hard copies of tests from teachers’ drawers and tampered with the computers, authorities say.

Police say the students later sold the tests and their answers to their peers for $50 apiece and offered to change grades for $300. It appears they had about eight or nine takers.

Now the three students soon could earn a dubious distinction: becoming the first high school students expelled from the school – and indeed the entire district – in years. Stephany is recommending expulsion for all three, and their first administrative hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.

In the past three years, only one student has been expelled from the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District: a middle schooler who brandished a knife on a school bus, Stephany said.

Stephany speculated that the crime may have closed a few collegiate doors for the students. But it isn’t clear how badly this will mess up their chances at getting into good schools.

Officials at UCLA were vague on whether getting expelled hurts an otherwise strong student’s chances of getting accepted. For instance, UCLA admissions applications do not ask students whether they’ve been expelled, said UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.

However: “If the expulsion is noted in the student’s final transcript, admission officers may look into the reasons for the expulsion, even if the student has already been admitted. They also have flexibility in terms of what, if anything, they would do in these situations.”

Vazquez added that the university rarely sees cases in which a student has been expelled.

In any event, the students not only have an academic problem. Now they each face being charged with two felonies, one for burglary and one for the computer crimes, Palos Verdes Estates police Sgt. Steve Barber said.

“I’ve been working at (the Palos Verdes Estates department) for 16 years and I have never seen anything like this – it was a pretty intense case,” he said. “It was pretty incredible what they had accomplished before they got caught.”

To be sure, if the students are convicted, their records would be cleared once they turn 18, Barber said. (Crimes usually need to be violent to stick on a minor’s record.)

But the students – whose next trial date is set for April – are sure to find themselves saddled with the stress of navigating the juvenile justice system at a time when they are trying to get their academic lives back in order.

The issue surfaced about a month ago in the form of vague hallway chatter, Stephany said. Mindful of the rumors, teachers checked their grade books and noticed discrepancies.

Police and school officials later found easy-to-miss devices attached to USB ports on the computers. These were “keyloggers,” or spy software that makes a record of everything a person types on a computer, thereby enabling the students to obtain information such as the teachers’ passwords.

Barber said the students failed to realize a key detail: Many teachers at Palos Verdes High also keep written accounts of grades – a practice he recommends for all schools.

“So when the teachers are noticing discrepancies online, the red flags start to go up,” he said.

Stephany said although the alleged culprits were good students, they tended to keep to themselves.

“They really weren’t involved with a whole lot of athletics or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding that while he knows most of his students by name, he only knew one of the three alleged culprits, and only vaguely. “There were some minor discipline issues in the past, but nothing major – nothing like this.”

As for the nine students who received tests or had their grades altered, most if not all were suspended. Stephany said seven of those students came forward voluntarily, after learning that the consequences would be far less dire for them if they did so.

He said his ultimate goal is to do what it takes to maintain the academic integrity of the school.

“I’m concerned about doing what’s right and letting the cards fall where they will,” he said.

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley schools lag in academic performance despite paying superintendent $663K

Centinela Valley schools lag in academic performance despite paying superintendent $663K

By Rob Kuznia, The Daily Breeze

Posted: 03/07/14, 12:53 PM PST | Updated: on 03/09/2014

More stories investigating the Centinela Valley

The tiny Centinela Valley Union High School District employs one of the most expensive superintendents in the state of California, if not the nation.

And the district is spending nearly $200 million to provide state-of-the-art facilities at the three high schools it serves: Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne.

But the district’s test scores — while on the rise — remain the lowest among all 80 school districts in Los Angeles County. Its dropout rate — while improving — now sits at 24 percent according to the latest available figures from the state. This means about one out of every four students who starts ninth grade in the district stops attending school before graduating. The countywide average dropout rate for high schools is 15 percent. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s 20 percent.

Still, the story of Centinela Valley’s academic progress is multifaceted. In summary, the district, under the leadership of Jose Fernandez — whose total compensation ballooned from $286,000 in 2010 to $663,000 last year — has made some academic strides, though not enough to lift the district out of the basement on many measures.

Fernandez, who took the helm in 2008, did not respond to a request for comment. But under his watch, the district has made gains on test scores, graduation rates, college readiness, attendance, the performance of English learners and the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses, among other things.

It also has launched several academies — schools within schools — designed to spark student interest in careers such as engineering, marine science, criminal justice, environment and culinary arts. Last year, it was recognized by the state for linking coursework to career pathways.

Hawthorne High recently became the only high school in the South Bay or Harbor Area to offer a curriculum called International Baccalaureate, an accelerated program that rivals Advanced Placement and whose most successful graduates can enter college as sophomores.

Although controversial, the new facilities bankrolled by two voter-approved bond measures have been a boon to a population of students whose level of poverty can be staggering. Teachers union President Jack Foreman says students at Hawthorne High use the brand-new media center as a place to study until 8 p.m., in many cases because it beats trying to do homework in cramped apartments.

“Half of these kids are living in very unstable homes — crazy living situations,” he said. “There were two brothers last year who told me, ‘We’re back living behind the tattoo parlor.’ ”

The Lennox apartment of a family he visited was even more discouraging, Foreman said.

“It was worse than things I’ve seen in Third World countries,” he said. “You walk in and there’s some little tiny kitchen like in the hallway. … No central room to sit, it was dark. Oh, God — just run down. A lot of our kids are coming from places like this.”

Although the district’s test scores have risen in five years, they remain a sore subject. The district’s 2013 Academic Performance Index score — a number from 200 to 1,000 assigned to schools every fall based on the performance of students on a handful of springtime tests — rose from 626 when Fernandez first arrived to 680 last year.

And yet, the 680 figure is not only the lowest districtwide score in Los Angeles County, it’s 19 points below the next lowest-scoring district, Compton Unified. In fact, Centinela Valley’s API score has been the lowest of all 80 districts since at least 2009, with the exception of 2012, when it crept up to 78th before dropping back to last, according to the California Department of Education.

(The county technically serves 81 districts, but the lowest performing of them — the Los Angeles County Office of Education — isn’t considered a regular school district as it caters to high-risk students: juvenile offenders, pupils with disabilities and potential dropouts.)

In fairness, educators say high school districts are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to API scores because elementary students generally perform better on tests than older students.

“I would strongly argue that the L.A. County ranking is way too simplistic and definitely does not provide a fair and accurate picture of CV’s academic situation,” said John Schwada, a public relations consultant hired in late February by the district, about three weeks after the Daily Breeze published the initial story about Fernandez’s compensation. “The L.A. County ranking compares apples and oranges.”

Even so, there are five high school districts in Los Angeles County, and Centinela Valley currently ranks last among them. And of the 67 high school districts across California with a 2013 API score, Centinela Valley ranks 65th, ahead of King City and Upper Lake. (A handful of high school districts had no score.)

Schwada also noted that Lawndale High School’s scores fall in the top 50 percent when held against individual schools across the state with similar demographics. Hawthorne High falls in the top 40 percent among like high schools; Leuzinger, the bottom 40 percent.

He also pointed out that, although the district’s dropout rate as a whole is higher than LAUSD’s, the corresponding figure for individual schools paints a more favorable picture. Lawndale High’s dropout rate of 5.6 percent is better than nearly 60 percent of all high schools in Los Angeles County. He also noted that Hawthorne High’s rate of 18.6 percent is better than 21 percent of the county’s high schools, including Gardena High.

In any event, Allan Mucerino, who in the fall of 2012 became the district’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said the district’s overall API ranking among school districts in Los Angeles County is all the more reason to redouble efforts to improve further.

“I don’t want to make excuses,” he said. “I think that’s just a message that we need to continue to improve and do better. It’s why I’ve chosen to work here, because there is a lot of room for growth and work to be done, and, as a result of that, the rewards are that much greater.”

Foreman is adamant that schools in Centinela Valley have improved significantly over the past four years.

“Leuzinger (High) is a transformed school,” he said. “I mean, that place was a hell-hole before.”

The most easily recognizable change at that school at 4118 Rosecrans Ave., in Lawndale, is the campus itself. Bankrolled by funds from a pair of voter-approved construction bonds worth a combined $196 million, the district replaced half of Leuzinger’s 80-year-old campus with a state-of-the art wing of classrooms.

Educators say discipline problems there are way down as well. And Leuzinger is no longer at the bottom of the heap on test scores.

Some, however, attribute the school’s aberrant API score spike of 56 points in a single year in 2011-12 to a corresponding sudden near quadrupling of the student population at the nearby Lloyde Continuation School, reportedly to ensure that the tests of poor-performing students would not take be reflected in Leuzinger’s scores.

“A lot of the API score comes from the 10th grade CAHSEE score,” said a district employee who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, referring to the California High School Exit Exam. “There was a big sweep of 10th-graders sent to Lloyde. Those kids should not have been sent.”

Mucerino — who was not in Centinela Valley at the time — says while he has heard the same accusation, he believes the number of students short on credits was just unusually large that year. However, the following year, enrollment at the continuation school dropped closer to normal, and Leuzinger’s test scores plunged by 25 points.

Despite Centinela Valley’s academic struggles, plenty of the district’s students do go on to thrive after high school.

Genesis Gutierrez, the 2013 valedictorian at Lawndale High School, earned a full-ride scholarship to Cal State Long Beach, where she is already on pace to graduate early. Four of the other top students all went to either Brown University, UC Santa Barbara or UCLA.

“I loved the teachers, they were amazing,” she said. But she added: “It was just very sad that at Lawndale High School, sometimes we would have textbooks that were outdated, mismatched, tearing, ripping, etcetera.”

She lamented that students had to procure their own novels for English class, and the science labs — due to the massive construction under way — were held in bungalow classrooms.

“We had to share goggles and lab aprons,” she said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault by any means, it’s just that there wasn’t the funding.”

Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

School superintendent amassed $663,000 in compensation

Centinela Valley schools chief amassed $663,000 in compensation in 2013

This was the first in a series of stories on the big-money politics of a high-poverty, low-performing school district in Los Angeles County. The series won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. To view a landing page with links to the entire series and infographics, click here.

Originally published on Feb. 8, 2014


The superintendent of the Centinela Valley high school district negotiated a contract so loaded with out-of-the-ordinary perks that he managed to amass more than $663,000 in total compensation last year.

Documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from the Los Angeles County Office of Education show that although Jose Fernandez had a base pay of $271,000 in the 2013 calendar year, his other benefits amounted to nearly $400,000.

On top of that, the district just over a year ago provided Fernandez with a $910,000 loan at 2 percent interest to buy a house in affluent Ladera Heights.

Though Centinela is made up of just three comprehensive high schools and a continuation school in Hawthorne and Lawndale, Fernandez’s payout in 2013 more than doubled that of his peers in larger neighboring South Bay districts.

His total compensation even eclipsed that of John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system. Deasy’s base salary is $330,000 this school year and his gross compensation is just shy of $390,000, according to the LAUSD. But the district enrolls more than 650,000 students while Centinela Valley serves about 6,600.

“That’s obscene,” said Sandra Goins, executive director of South Bay United Teachers, the umbrella union for teachers in the Centinela Valley, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula school districts. “That places him above the president of the United States — the leader of the free world.”

(The overall compensation package for President Barack Obama — salary, benefits, plus other perks — amounts to $569,000 annually.)

Fernandez, 54, was hired in January 2008 to take over a district suffering from lagging student test scores as it teetered on the brink of financial ruin. He had worked in the district since 1999, serving as an assistant superintendent of business and executive director of its adult school.

A former Inglewood city councilman, he took the top job at Centinela Valley during a tumultuous time. His predecessor, Cheryl White, had just been fired, and the district was fiscally insolvent. Fernandez was viewed as a money-minded leader.

After serving nearly a year as the interim superintendent, Fernandez was promoted to permanent status in late 2008 on a narrow 3-2 vote. With the new title came a 19-month contract with a base salary of about $163,000, plus allowances.

As Fernandez moved to shake up the district and steer it back toward financial stability, school board members rewarded him with a generous contract in 2009. Though his base pay increased only slightly to $198,000, a careful read of the deal reveals some striking fringe benefits:

• An annual raise of 9 percent.

• A relatively short work year of 215 days, compared to as many as 245 days worked by superintendents of other school districts.

• The right to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year of 215 days.

• A clause allowing him to be reimbursed by the district for purchasing “air time,” or up to five years of service to add to the number of years he actually worked, so as to boost his lifetime pension.

• A stipulation that he can only be fired by a supermajority of the board (four of five members).

• The ability to cash out vacation pay.

• An option to take a low-interest loan from the school district to purchase a home.

Fernandez exercised the loan option a little more than a year ago, using it to buy the two-story, four-bedroom home in Ladera Heights, one of the more expensive ZIP codes in Los Angeles County. He has 40 years to pay it off, at an interest rate of just 2 percent.

“That’s a super good deal,” according to Steve Murillo, owner of First Manhattan Mortgage and Realtors in Manhattan Beach. Murillo noted that the vast majority of home loans must be paid off in 30 years; interest rates in the current market now hover in the low- to mid-4 percent range.

“It’s like they are giving him free money,” he added.

The revelations about Fernandez’s compensation package come at a time when State Controller John Chiang is calling for more transparency among California school districts about superintendent salaries. Last week, he began asking every public school district for compensation documents, so they can be posted on his website at

Chiang has been putting together a user-friendly database listing the salary and benefits of California public employees ever since the scandal in the tiny city of Bell, where city leaders hid their exorbitant pay packages from the public. City Manager Robert Rizzo was collecting a salary of nearly $800,000, part of an annual compensation package worth $1.5 million.

Rizzo, the former assistant city manager and six other Bell officials have been convicted of corruption charges. He is currently serving 10 to 12 years in prison.

“After the city of Bell demonstrated how the absence of transparency and accountability can breed fiscal mismanagement, my office endeavored to create a one-stop resource detailing compensation data for every public official and employee,” Chiang wrote in a letter sent to every public school district on Monday.

Fernandez declined to be interviewed for this story, saying, through a spokesman, that he was loath to have to defend earning what he is legally entitled to by contract.

But his supporters point out that he has brought big improvements to a district that, prior to his arrival in 2008, was on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention a state takeover.

“We were one payroll away from being taken over,” said Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “This really was a scary place.”

Under Fernandez’s tenure, test scores in the largely low-income district — once among the lowest in the county — have risen, especially at two struggling high schools, Hawthorne and Leuzinger. (They’ve dipped at Lawndale High.) Also, major facility upgrades are either underway or finished at all three campuses, thanks to a pair of voter-approved bonds netting nearly $100 million each.

In addition, Fernandez played a key role in the November 2012 passage of a parcel tax that will bolster the district’s general-fund revenues of about $50 million by $4.6 million for each of the next dozen years.

“He’s a great leader,” said board President Maritza Molina, a 2004 alumnus of Lawndale High who was elected to the board in 2009, just months after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. “He is very transparent with the board.”

The school board has been so pleased with Fernandez’s leadership that it unanimously extended his lucrative contract for another four years in 2012.

Pressed about specifics in the contract, Molina instructed a reporter to discuss details with Michael Simidjian, an attorney working for the district on a contract basis.

The Daily Breeze also called the three other board members who voted for Fernandez’s 2009 contract. Two of them — Rocio Pizano and Hugo Rojas — did not return calls. The third, Gloria Ramos, returned the call but declined to comment.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said it isn’t illegal for a school superintendent — or any government official — to earn a high salary.

“Public officials can make high salaries if an elected board approves it in an open meeting,” she said.

Julie White, a consultant with the Association of California School Administrators, said she hasn’t come across so hefty a pay package in California. “That’s a large amount of money,” she said.

But she said it isn’t necessarily unusual for superintendent contracts to include housing assistance. That said, housing perks often raise eyebrows in the K-12 realm. In 2008, then-LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer drew fire for his $3,000-a-month housing stipend, part of a compensation package that totaled $381,000.

It isn’t entirely clear how Fernandez’s 2013 total payout breaks down. Some lucrative perks in his contract would be difficult for a layperson to spot. For example, one clause reads: “The District shall pay the employee portion of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) contribution and shall Compensate Superintendent for any service credit purchased.”

Though it sounds innocuous, that clause fattened his 2013 compensation by a six-figure sum that exceeds the entire annual salaries of many superintendents. About $215,000 of that came from the district’s one-time reimbursement to him for purchasing the service credit known as “air time,” said Simidjian, who works for the firm Dannis Wolliver Kelley.

Although air-time benefits vanished on Jan. 1, 2013, as a result of statewide pension reform, officials in Centinela Valley say Fernandez purchased his years out of pocket before then, and was reimbursed by the school district during the 2013 calendar year.

Another roughly $20,000 came from how the district covers Fernandez’s annual contribution to the state’s retirement system.

One obscure benefit pertains to the 215-day work year, which payroll experts say is short. It is more common to work 225; Deasy’s LAUSD work year spans 249 days.

“Two hundred and 15 days means that he doesn’t have to work nine weeks,” said a retired member of the California Association of School Business Officials, who is highly regarded as an expert on legal school payroll matters but asked that his name not be used. “If you get a full annual salary, and there’s nine weeks a year that you don’t have to work, you certainly don’t need to take 30 days of vacation.”

The short work year essentially encourages Fernandez to cash in much or all of his vacation time at the end of the year. His contract gives him 30 days of vacation annually.

In 2013, Fernandez did this to the tune of about $25,000, Simidjian said.

The short work year also increases his daily rate of pay. This affects yet another arcane-but-important provision in Centinela: The right for the superintendent to be paid for days worked beyond the contracted work year. In 2013, this contract provision beefed up Fernandez’s bottom line by about $50,000, Simidjian said.

Even if some of these expenses are one-time payments, Fernandez’s gross compensation has risen year after year since 2010, when it was $286,290. That amount ballooned to $392,000 in 2011, then to $403,000 in 2012 and $663,000 last year, according to county Office of Education, which calculates pay and compensation in calendar rather than fiscal years. In 2014, Fernandez’s total compensation is expected to return to the $400,000s.

Meanwhile, teachers in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which serves communities where the median household income ranges from $33,000 to $49,000, have received two raises since 2006-07 — one for 1.75 percent in 2011, and the second for 1 percent at the beginning of this school year.

Jack Foreman, the Centinela Valley teachers union president, said the pay range for teachers in the district hovers around the county average, but the benefits package is among the least generous in the county.

“It really makes me feel sick,” he said of Fernandez’s compensation. “I think the message is that the district doesn’t put a very high value on its teachers.”

In an effort to make a fair comparison, the Daily Breeze obtained the same W-2 documents from the county for the superintendents of the Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Peninsula unified school districts. Total 2013 compensation amounted to $257,804 for George Mannon of Torrance Unified, $251,032 for Steven Keller of Redondo Beach Unified and $227,229 for Walker Williams of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified.

As for Fernandez’s compensation package, the retired school finance expert, who helped the Daily Breeze deconstruct the contract, said he has never come across a deal like this during his 29 years in the business.

“I’m just appalled — it’s horrible,” he said. “It’s such a rip-off. There are some similarities to Bell, you might say. And the problem is, since most of it is legal, who can do anything about it?”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

Centinela Valley superintendent secured $750K life insurance policy before school board approval, documents show

April 17, 2014

The embattled superintendent of the Centinela Valley school district — who is under investigation for his massive pay — took out a $750,000 life insurance policy before securing approval from the school board to do so, the Daily Breeze has learned.

That life insurance policy was in addition to a $1 million policy that Jose Fernandez had already taken out. Both were whole-life plans, meaning the premiums paid by the district can be cashed out, like the balance of a bank account.

For 54-year-old Fernandez, whose total compensation of more than $663,000 in 2013 made him one of the highest-paid public school superintendents in the nation, those policies grant him access to even more income, should he choose to surrender the policies and take the cash.

Fernandez today could surrender the larger policy for $154,770 in cash, and the smaller policy for about $83,000, said Rob Damico, an insurance expert who came to this conclusion based on charts in the policies that were obtained by the Daily Breeze.

After giving the school district the 20 percent share of any payout to which it is entitled by contract, Fernandez could cash out both policies and take home about $190,000.

“That’s a nice little bonus he’s getting,” said Damico, a State Farm insurance agent in Signal Hill. “I wish I had been the one that sold this policy. The commission would have been really nice on this thing.”

School experts say it is rare for school administrators to get whole-life insurance policies from their employers. Most public school administrators — and most employees in general — have term-life policies that offer a payout to a beneficiary only in the event of death.

Whole-life policies, on the other hand, double as savings accounts, yielding modest annual returns to the tune of about 2 to 3 percent, Damico said.

Naj Alikhan, communications director for the Association of California School Administrators, said most professionals inside and outside of education have a compensation package that includes some sort of life insurance policy.

“Those policies could come in various forms, from term-life to accidental death and dismemberment to any other configuration,” he said in an email to the Daily Breeze. “Whole life policies are rare in all lines of work.”

But Ken Shelton, the former chief business officer of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said it isn’t unheard of for administrators to get whole-life policies.

“It happens, but I don’t know the frequency,” he said. “It’s not totally unreasonable.”

In any case, whole-life policies are expensive. The Centinela Valley school district, which oversees three comprehensive high schools in Hawthorne and Lawndale, has been paying New York Life about $56,000 a year in premiums for the $1 million policy, and about $41,000 a year for the $750,000 policy. That adds up to about $97,000 a year, all for premiums.

The $1 million policy was among the many perks enshrined in Fernandez’s employment contract, approved by the school board in December 2009. Documents show Fernandez initiated the policy the next month, securing a plan from New York Life.

Nearly a year later, on Oct. 28, 2010, Fernandez took out a second policy from New York Life, according to documents obtained by the Daily Breeze. The date of issue on that $750,000 policy was Nov. 8, 2010.

However, it wasn’t until the following month, on Dec. 14 of that year, that the Centinela Valley school board approved the second whole-life policy for Fernandez among a batch of revised board polices and administrative regulations. The milieu also included $300,000 whole-life policies for Assistant Superintendents Bob Cox and Ron Hacker, as well as $150,000 term-life policies for all managerial employees, including the school board.

The school board vote wasn’t unanimous.

Voting against it was one board member, Sandra Suarez, who by then had become a lone-wolf dissenter on a board whose core three members were in lock step. (Gloria Ramos abstained on that item.)

Suarez said she wasn’t even aware of the life insurance issue at the time. Instead, she objected to a pattern she was noticing: district officials, she said, would make decisions first, and then seek board approval later. District officials often would try to rectify such matters by making the votes retroactive to an earlier date. Fernandez’s whole-life insurance policy, for example, was made retroactive to the beginning of the school year.

“Certain things he might have wanted done, they did ahead of time,” she said. “It tells us something: The board was not making the decisions; he was making the decisions.”

Reached on his cellphone Thursday, Fernandez declined to comment. The Daily Breeze also emailed detailed questions to Fernandez’s attorney, Spencer Covert. Aside from a follow-up question sent by Covert’s secretary, the office had not responded by Thursday evening.

Fernandez’s compensation package is currently being reviewed by several agencies, including the FBI, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. What’s more, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System also is investigating the matter.

Cox, a longtime administrator in Centinela Valley who is serving as interim superintendent during the multiple probes into Fernandez’s compensation, did not dispute that it appears Fernandez took out the insurance policy before the board approved it.

“This was a district that was driven by one person,” he said. “Now, board members and even senior administrators are trying to come out from under that and to figure out how to do the right thing. That’s what’s going to happen here, and it’s going to be painful for a while, but we’re going to have to show that it’s not business as usual.”

It’s unclear whether that sequence of events amounted to a breach of state education law. Officials from two agencies — the District Attorney’s Office and the county Office of Education — declined to weigh in. Both agencies are refraining from making any further comments until completion of their probes.

Teachers union President Jack Foreman has long sounded the alarm on the policies, saying they are hidden income for Fernandez.

“It’s a gift of cash, but it masquerades,” he said. “The reason it builds cash value is you’re paying a fortune in premiums.”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil

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.’”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties

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.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar

More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar

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).”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Ousted Inglewood Unified leader took $100K buyout, district still spiraling down

Ousted Inglewood Unified leader took $100K buyout, district still spiraling down

The state-appointed leader of the Inglewood Unified School District was removed after only two months on the job back in December, but still received a $100,000 buyout.

Now, the district Kent Taylor left behind is continuing to spiral downward, with teachers and other employees facing the prospect of layoffs and double-digit pay cuts to stave off further financial disaster.

The discrepancy between Taylor’s buyout and the looming pay cuts prompted consternation among union officials this week, when the district held a special board meeting to address issues stemming from the buyout.

“When our people do something wrong, they get fired,” said Chris Graeber, field representative for the classified union representing custodians, clerical workers and other nonteachers. “This guy walks away with 100 grand in his pocket after two months of work. We can’t figure out how this is all adding up. ”

In September, fiscally insolvent Inglewood Unified became the ninth school district in the history of California to be taken over by the state. With expenditures exceeding revenues by some $16 million annually due to plunging student enrollment, the state in October floated the district an emergency loan of $55 million – an extreme measure that required firing then-local Superintendent Gary McHenry and stripping the locally elected school board of its legislative powers.

Around that time, Taylor was thrust into a high-profile, high-pressure situation when California state schools chief Tom Torlakson recruited him from the top job at the Southern Kern Unified School District in hopes Taylor could rescue Inglewood Unified from the financial quicksand.

He was hired at a salary of $16,670 a month, plus $600 every month for expenses, amounting to about $207,240 annually. Two months later, he was pressured to resign for making financial commitments with the teachers union without approval from the California Department of Education.

In mid-March, Taylor took a job next door, as deputy superintendent of the K-8 Lennox School District. Because he’d asked for his $100,000 buyout to be paid off on a monthly basis, he has essentially been earning two executive paychecks for the past three months. The issue came to light this week, when the Los Angeles County Office of Education notified the Inglewood school district that Taylor appears to be employed by two districts at once.

On the one hand, the issue is merely technical. To take care of it, the Inglewood Unified essentially just needs to cut Taylor a check for the balance of what he is owed so it can get him off the books.

But union leaders see the buyout as an issue of fairness. Inglewood’s classified union expects a round of layoffs in coming weeks and the teachers union faces a possible 15 percent pay cut.

“If the state believes (Taylor) made mistakes, why are they taking it out on us?” said Pete Somberg, president of the Inglewood teachers union. “And why are they taking it out on the kids? ”

Asked this week why he was allowed to resign, and why the deal included a $100,000 buyout, state officials were terse.

“The payments he has received were pursuant to his contract,” said a spokeswoman with the California Department of Education in an email to the Daily Breeze. Taylor did not return a call from the Daily Breeze early this week.

The state replaced Taylor with the school finances leader serving directly under him, La Tanya Kirk-Carter. That was supposed to be a temporary assignment until the state found a permanent hire, but it’s been nearly half a year and she remains at the helm.

Now, Kirk-Carter is in the unfortunate position of trying to persuade the teachers to back out of an agreement they’d signed with Taylor; it includes several furlough days but no significant concession on salary or benefits.

That deal, Kirk-Carter has said, failed to save enough money: just $1 million when the district has been deficit-spending by $16 million or more every year.

Teachers union President Somberg says it isn’t the teachers’ fault that Taylor wasn’t authorized to bargain. Inglewood teachers, he added, cannot afford a pay cut.

“We’re already the lowest-paid teachers in Los Angeles County,” he said. (Teachers in Inglewood do enjoy an unusually generous benefits package, though.)

Somberg said he’s been told that if teachers don’t accept a pay cut, the district faces an ominous prospect: running out of money from the state’s $55 million bailout loan before the end of the 2013-14 school year. That could mean dissolution of the district.

“They’re telling the teachers we need to take a 15 percent pay cut, and if we don’t, they’re holding the wrath of God over our head,” Somberg said. “Even though we didn’t mess up – they did. In order to save the district, it’s going to have to come on the backs of the employees. That’s just not OK. ”

The matter of Taylor’s ill-fated relationship with Inglewood Unified resurfaced Monday, when the district held a special board meeting to discuss a few issues, one of which was listed on the public agenda under a litigation header titled “Taylor vs. IUSD.” It turns out Taylor is not suing the district. Instead, the Los Angeles County Office of Education is asking for Inglewood to pay out the remainder of his monthly balance in a lump sum. (However, sources say there is a dispute between Taylor and the district about what he is owed.)

Next door, the Lennox school board is pleased enough with Taylor’s performance to make it official. On Tuesday night, it approved his contract, which codifies his $165,000 annual salary. School board President Marisol Cruz gave a rave review of his performance since taking the district’s No. 2 job on March 20.

“He gets things done, and fast,” she said, noting how Taylor swiftly made two important hires – fiscal director and the food services director. “If the board wants to get something done, we give a directive, and he tells us how to get there. It’s very clear, it’s very transparent and I love it. ”

Still, the sentiment apparently isn’t unanimous: the Lennox board – currently a fractured body – approved Taylor’s contract on a narrow 3-2 vote, with board members Juan Navarro and Angela Fajardo dissenting.