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

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.’”

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA

Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA


The campaign literature looks innocent enough: a glossy mailer from a Torrance organization called the P.T.A. Voters Guide — complete with decorative apples — that endorses about a dozen South Bay candidates in various races for the Nov. 5 election.

But the slate mailer has stoked the fury of the PTA that everybody knows — that is, the one that raises money for schools with bake sales and school carnivals.

The reason? The P.T.A. does not equal the PTA. The former is an organization called the “Parent Teacher Action” Voter Guide, an organization that to date exists solely to endorse the candidates who paid for a spot on the mailer.

The latter acronym stands for the Parent Teacher Association. By law and by design, this well-oiled, 105-year-old organization — whose logo is trademarked — does not endorse candidates for office.

Last week, as the glossy ad landed in the mailboxes of South Bay residents, irked local PTA affiliates wasted little time in sending their complaint up the flagpole to statewide headquarters in Sacramento. The statewide chapter, in turn, promptly relayed the complaint to the organization’s legal team at the national level.

“The PTA has great credibility because we are nonpartisan and nonsectarian, and so it’s very important to us to maintain that nonpartisanship,” said Colleen You, president of the California State PTA. “In this particular case, I think the group or the individuals circulating the mailer are trading on the credibility and reputation of the PTA.”

Michele Nadeau, a parent volunteer at South High in Torrance, was less diplomatic.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Nadeau, who was careful to mention that she was speaking as a parent, not a PTA representative. “It’s a direct attempt to mislead the voters. They’re vying to represent us yet they are hoping we are uninformed. It’s insulting. I think it’s disturbing that we have candidates resorting to these tactics — deliberately trying to deceive us.”

Slate mailers often take liberties in an effort to provide a certain snapshot portrayal of what they stand for. But this dustup raises questions about how far they can go before crossing an ethical or even legal line.

The creator of the mailer is Liberty Campaign Solutions, a political consulting company run by Patrick Furey.

A representative of the company who declined to give his name said the group is well within its legal right to use the acronym.

“We have never given any false claim to being affiliated with that organization,” he said, pointing out that the literature includes a disclaimer, on the bottom of the back page, stating that the group is not affiliated with the “National PTA nor any Parent Teacher Association.”

By way of comparison, he cited the well-known California slate mailer “COPS Voter Guide.”

“The people who put it out are not law enforcement in any way whatsoever,” he said. “However, I am sure that they support safe neighborhoods and protecting families. That’s their thing. That’s what they are advocating for.”

Likewise, he said, the P.T.A. Voter Guide is advocating for quality education and safe schools.

“When we speak to candidates, we ask them, ‘Do you support safe schools and quality education?’ ” he said. “It is a pledge.”

Among the candidates who took this pledge is Sergio Mortara, the only one of five contestants for the Hawthorne school board whose name and bio is on the mailer. Mortara, who has never run for political office, said he was taken aback by how, just days after he filed his campaign papers, he was flooded with solicitations from slate mailers and consultants.

Of the seven or eight mailers that came his way, the P.T.A. slate seemed like the best fit.

“The other ones were either Republican or Democrat,” he said. Asked if he thought it is misleading to use the P.T.A. acronym, he said, “It never dawned on me, the similarities, to be honest.”

Also on the mailer is John Paul Tabakian, who is running for a seat on the Torrance school board. Tabakian says he did not pay to be on the mailer. Instead, his spot was purchased by some other organization or individual that supports him.

“I don’t know who did,” said the political science instructor at Los Angeles Mission College and L.A. Trade Tech, who is supported by an alliance that includes unions and Republican groups alike. “The way I see it, I cannot refuse to be on the slate.”

Tabakian likes to say that he is a professor, not a politician, and he views the situation with a degree of detachment. In fact, he used the slate mailer as a discussion piece in one of his classes.

“One of my students said, ‘I think that is misleading,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘In politics, perception is everything.’ ”

One Torrance school board candidate who is not on the mailer is Michael Wermers, currently the board president. Liberty Campaign Solutions repeatedly solicited him to purchase an ad. (The participation cost reportedly varies according to the race, but one source said Liberty asked for $1,000.)

“It seemed like a capitalization of the PTA’s logo,” Wermers said. “That’s what turned me off.”

Terry Ragins, a Torrance school board member with a long history of PTA involvement, said one galling aspect of the mailer is that some of the candidates, in her opinion, are definitely not friends of schools. In particular, she was referring to Rick Marshall, a candidate for the El Camino College board, who in the past has been criticized — by school people and judges alike — for filing frivolous lawsuits against Torrance Unified.

But she expressed surprise that the mailer includes an ad for Torrance school board member Mark Steffen, whose bid for re-election she has endorsed.

“I’m guessing he was not clear about what he was getting into,” she said of Steffen, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ragins is also puzzled by the mailer’s inclusion of an advertisement for the Torrance mayoral candidacy of Pat Furey, father of Patrick. That election won’t happen until June 2014.

“He has been a huge friend of the PTA,” she said of the elder Furey, noting how the Torrance City Council member is working with the organization to find more foster parents in Torrance. “He’s a friend of mine, and I’ve always felt like he’s an honorable person. That’s why I’m withholding judgment.”

Furey also couldn’t be reached for comment.

As for the slate mailer, the blow-back from the PTA has been enough to persuade Liberty Campaign Solutions to begin the process of changing the P.T.A. logo.

“We have our graphic artist working on it,” the representative said, adding that the new logo will be ready by the next cycle of elections in 2014. “We don’t want to piss off the PTA. That’s not our goal.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Embattled Centinela Valley school district Superintendent Jose Fernandez gives himself pay cut

Embattled Centinela Valley school district Superintendent Jose Fernandez gives himself pay cut

March 11, 2014


Kicking off a wild school board meeting that drew some 300 furious residents, Centinela Valley high school district Superintendent Jose Fernandez — who has come under intense scrutiny for a compensation package that amounted to $663,000 last year — announced he would voluntarily cut many of the perks embedded in his contract, bringing his salary to $295,000.

Although Fernandez said the amount of last year’s total compensation — which includes perks and benefits — has been exaggerated by the media, he nonetheless offered to forfeit a bevy of benefits, most notably the annual 9 percent raise embedded in his contract as a bonus for longevity.

“These are significant give-backs,” he said, over a rising chorus of jeers. “I hope they reassure the public and the board that I’m being reasonable.”

The five-member board and superintendent overseeing four high schools in Hawthorne and Lawndale have been buffeted by criticism that has only intensified since the Daily Breeze first reported on Fernandez’s compensation package on Feb. 9. In addition to his pay and benefits, Fernandez also took a $910,000, low-interest loan from the school district to purchase a home in affluent Ladera Heights for the same amount.

Last week, in response to the controversy, state Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, proposed a bill that seeks, among other things, to assign more responsibility to the Los Angeles County Office of Education to police excessive compensation packages for school leaders.

Fernandez’s gesture Tuesday night did little to quell public outrage over his employment contract, which was unanimously approved in 2009 by the five board members, four of whom remain on the panel.

Dozens of speakers — many of them students from Hawthorne, Leuzinger and Lawndale high schools — stepped up to the microphone in the Centinela Valley Center for the Arts in Lawndale and excoriated Fernandez and the board. Many called on them to resign.

“You serve us, because we have elected you to serve at our pleasure,” said Danielle Sevilla, a resident in the district. “Do not put this community through a costly and traumatic recall process. Do the right and honorable thing and step down.”

Several speakers came to the board bearing props. One student placed a broken-down computer upon the stage, saying it was from the computer lab at Leuzinger High.

In a surreal moment, early on in the meeting, a livid Lawndale resident named Jay Gould threw a fistful of dollar bills at the board on the stage, shouting that all they care about is money. For hours afterward, the dollar bills lay strewn across the stage after speaker after speaker took the microphone to lambaste the board.

“You are the only superintendent who doesn’t work the whole school year — you get 60 days of vacation, while the rest of us who pay your salary get two weeks,” said Hawthorne resident Kristel Lindner. “You can say all you want that you’ve done a great job, but buildings don’t teach students. Last school board meeting you said we should have come sooner and these problems could have been fixed sooner.”

Among the many students to address the board was Lawndale High student Fatima Alvarez.

“Our parents work two to three jobs to take care of us … and they expect you to do your job,” she said to loud cheers. “It is not nice to be corrupt, it is not fair for us.”

Fernandez argued that the Daily Breeze was misleading by publishing the total amount of his compensation package in calendar year 2013, rather than the 2012-13 school year.

“It is very misleading,” he said. “I’m the victim of that.”

However, when the Daily Breeze asked officials from the Los Angeles County Office of Education for the total compensation of several area superintendents, the agency responded by sending W-2 forms for the calendar year 2013, saying that was the way the agency calculates total compensation. The total amounts for the leaders of Torrance, Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes school districts were all in the $200,000s. The total compensation for Fernandez exceeded $663,000.

Toward the beginning of the meeting Tuesday evening, Lorena Gonzalez — the newest member of the board — asked the audience why she doesn’t see any of them attend regular school board meetings to commend students for their academic accomplishments.

She was shouted down by the angry crowd and gave up on trying to finish her thought.

Several speakers later addressed the comment when addressing the board.

“Your comment, Ms. Gonzalez, is highly offensive to me,” said resident Melanie Bell. “I take it personally. I have a reason I’m not here. I was working and am trying to raise good citizens in this community.”

Gonzalez later apologized to that parent.

“You’re absolutely right, we cannot always be here,” said Gonzalez, a banking executive and a mother of four students who attended district schools. “I work 10-hour shifts as well.”

Gonzalez noted that she has been on the board just two years, though she did not point out that she wasn’t among the board members who approved Fernandez’s contract.

“There is a lot to learn,” she said. “It’s not an excuse, and I’m not excusing myself.”

In his comments, board member Hugo Rojas struck a contrite tone.

“I’m sorry to everyone that you have to be here, and that we have to be in this room dealing with this matter,” he said. “That is my apology to you.”

Like she did in the previous board meeting, President Maritza Molina came to Fernandez’s defense.

“I am pleased that Superintendent Fernandez is ready to voluntarily and unilaterally take the pay cuts he has outlined tonight,” she said. “This is a good sign that the superintendent is listening to the concerns of the public and of this board. It is a sign of progress and we will be carefully watching as he makes good on his promises.”

However, she added, the superintendent’s voluntary concessions are “not the end of the story…As far as I am concerned, all elements — let me repeat, all elements — of that compensation package must be on the table during our negotiations.”

Staff writer Rebecca Kimitch contributed to this article.

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

Healthcare Reform May Leave Illegal Immigrants Worse Off

Healthcare Reform May Leave Illegal Immigrants Worse Off
May 13, 2010
By Rob Kuznia, Staff Writer

Weeks after passage of a historic health bill, Hispanic advocacy groups say the sweeping new law will generally bring much-needed benefits to Hispanics and businesses across America.

Those same groups, however, are raising concerns about how the health care reform bill will affect illegal immigrants who currently have coverage.

While it’s been widely reported that illegal immigrants are left out of the newly signed health law, less talked about is how the new law could actually make things worse for insured illegal immigrants — as opposed to merely maintaining the status quo.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will bring coverage to 32 million of the current 45 million uninsured Americans and cost roughly $850 billion over 10 years. But it could also cause many illegal immigrants to lose the coverage they have. And the number of illegal immigrants with coverage is surprisingly large.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that roughly 40 percent of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants residing in this country are insured, either because they purchased health coverage themselves or received it through their employers. The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce puts the estimate even higher.

“I don’t think many people know that approximately 50 percent purchase coverage,” Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the chamber, told Hispanic Business magazine. “These folks are in jeopardy of losing what little coverage they have.”

The bill that was signed into law March 30 not only prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving federal subsidies, it also — to the chagrin of immigration-rights advocates — bars them from purchasing insurance with their own money on the soon-to-be created statewide exchanges that will pool ratepayers to lower premiums.

To be sure, under the new law, illegal immigrants still will be able to purchase coverage out of pocket. It’s just that, because their plans will be excluded from the exchanges, they could see the cost of their premiums skyrocket out of reach.

This is because the creation of the new exchanges could have the effect of draining current risk pools of almost everyone except the illegal immigrants, said Jennifer Ng’andu, deputy director for health policy project with the National Council of La Raza.

“I think you could say on some level that undocumented immigrants (with coverage) are the ones who will be worse off than before,” she told Hispanic Business magazine.

Thus far, nobody knows exactly how the market is going to react, as the exchanges won’t take effect until 2014.

“But many people are starting to anticipate drastic increases in health insurance costs,” Ms. Ng’andu said.

Ultimately, fewer illegal immigrants getting coverage would translate into more people using emergency rooms or community health clinics for their health-care needs. These costs tend to ultimately be borne by ratepayers and taxpayers.

Elena Rios, M.D., president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, said the issue underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

“I think this country needs immigration reform to allow unauthorized immigrants who live here and work here and pay taxes to be able to have certain services,” she told Hispanic Business magazine.
Broadly Many Benefit

On a broad scale, though, many Hispanic groups are generally pleased with the new law.

With one in three of all U.S. Hispanics uninsured — and at least 20 percent of Hispanic-American citizens and legal residents uninsured — the population has more to gain than any other, Dr. Rios said. (About 15 percent of the entire U.S. population is uninsured.)
“It’s a phenomenal step forward for the Hispanic community,” she said.

Small Business Fares Well

Hispanic-owned businesses also stand to benefit.

With 98 percent of Hispanic-owned businesses employing fewer than 50 people, the legislation’s effect on small business is of primary importance to many Hispanics.

Over the past decade, the meteoric rise of health care costs has significantly hampered the ability of small businesses to offer health benefits to their employees.

Since 2000, the proportion of small businesses offering health benefits has dropped more than 20 percent, from two-thirds to less than half. The bulk of that drop has occurred over the past three years.

The new law benefits small businesses in several ways, Mr. Palomarez of the chamber said. First, it allows them to purchase insurance through the exchange. Also, small businesses that opt out still stand to benefit, as most of their employees will qualify to purchase individual plans on the exchange, improving the ability of those businesses to stay competitive with larger companies.

Finally, and most immediately, all small businesses offering health benefits to their employees will qualify for tax breaks.

“They can avail themselves this year of essentially free money,” David Ferreira, the chamber’s vice president for government affairs, told Hispanic Business magazine.

Mr. Ferreira said one disappointment to the chamber is how the law requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide coverage. The chamber had hoped that the threshold would be set at 100 employees — or, better yet, dropped altogether.

But in terms of how the bill affects Hispanic-owned businesses, the difference between 50 employees and 100 employees is relatively slight, he added. While about 99 percent of all Hispanic-owned companies employ fewer than 100 people, about 98 percent employ fewer than 50.

“We’re fighting over inches at this point,” he said.

Other Benefits

The new law stands to benefit U.S. Hispanics in many ways, advocacy groups said. It comes with a huge prevention component, meaning, for instance, that doctors will have financial incentives to discuss healthy lifestyles with patients.

This is particularly beneficial for Hispanics, who suffer disproportionately from obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Dr. Rios said.

The new law also means doctors and nurses in many areas of the country will have to undergo cultural competency training, which could include taking Spanish classes or hiring translators.

“It exists now, but not like with the court system,” Dr. Rios said. “The health care system has been light years behind. This is going to bring the system into the 21st Century.”

As it is, she added, just 5 percent of the nation’s doctors and nurses are Hispanic — a percentage that the National Hispanic Medical Association would like to see grow.

The new law also increases to 26 the age in which young people can stay on their parents’ plans. The current age varies from state to state, but in general coincides with the college years of middle-class families, which generally end around age 22, Dr. Rios said.

Also experiencing some improvements are the citizens of the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which received about $1 billion to establish an exchange and provide more affordable care.

“In the end, we think there are key gains that give us a foundation to be able to extend affordable insurance to many Latinos and immigrants across the country,” Ms. Ng’andu said. “The bill was by no means what we hoped to have, but it’s something we believe sort of lays the foundation for a better health care system

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

For Hilda Solis, a Chance Encounter with Former Teacher Changed Everything

For Hilda Solis, a Chance Encounter with Former Teacher Changed Everything

When Hilda Solis was a senior in high school, just a few weeks away from graduation, she wasn’t thinking about college.

Instead, the daughter of immigrant parents who met in citizenship class wanted to be a receptionist, or — if she was really lucky — a county clerk, like her older sister.


But one day, a chance encounter changed everything. Walking through the halls at La Puente High School in her native Los Angeles County, the teenage Solis bumped into her former seventh-grade history teacher.

The teacher, whom she remembers as Mr. Sanchez, had since become a high school guidance counselor. He asked about her future plans.

When she answered that she hoped to work for the county, Mr. Sanchez surprised her by responding in the negative.

“He said, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to go to college,'” she said, speaking to during a recent sit-down interview. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t afford college.'”

It turns out Mr. Sanchez knew what he was talking about. He helped Solis navigate the paperwork maze of applying to Cal-Poly Pomona, where she was not only accepted, but also received a full Cal-grant scholarship and financial aid. She went on to earn a master’s in public administration from USC. This led to an internship in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs in the Carter administration.

Today, Solis, 52, is the nation’s Secretary of Labor, making her the first Hispanic woman to serve as a regular U.S. cabinet secretary.

Hilda Solis’s story is surprisingly common, and shows how the booming U.S. Hispanic population, while making steady gains over the years in education and the workplace, remains a sea of untapped potential.

It also offers a telling illustration of how razor-thin the line between ordinary and extraordinary can be. Especially for the Hispanic population, which still suffers from disproportionately low high school and college graduation rates.

Many prominent Hispanics have stories that are eerily similar.

One of them is Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, now one of the nation’s highest-ranking public education officials and this magazine’s recently named Woman of the Year.

But in Melendez’s version, the high school counselor told her she wouldn’t be able to hack it at the four-year college of her dreams, UCLA. It wasn’t until one of her instructors at a community college encouraged her to apply to UCLA that she did. For there on out, she thrived. Today she’s the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

Another trailblazer with a similar story is Millie Garcia, president of California State Univerity’s Dominguez Hills campus, and California’s first female Hispanic president of a CSU school. Garcia grew up in a Brooklyn tenement neighborhood surrounded by factories, where her parents worked. Newly drawn boundary lines seeking to de-segregate the students meant she would attend an upper-middle-class public elementary school. Her five older siblings didn’t benefit from these boundary lines. To this day, Garcia, who holds a doctorate in higher education from Columbia University, is the only member of her family with a college degree.

“I’m not smarter than them; I just had more opportunities,” she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. “Anyone can do this if they work hard and have a good support network.”

Unfortunately, success stories like theirs are still the exception.

A education/18hispanic.html” target=”_blank”>study several years ago by the Pew Hispanic Center found that just 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared to 37 percent of whites and 21 percent of African Americans. Also, in 2007, the dropout rate among Hispanic high school students was an alarming 21.4 percent, compared to 5.3 percent among whites and 8.4 percent among blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

With low graduation numbers comes low expectations from teachers and career counselors. Such expectations can have a permanent effect on a person’s potential.

Conversely, the stories of Solis, Melendez and Garcia illustrate not only how student performance often rises to the level of heightened expectations, but also the profound difference one good educator can make.

In Solis’s case, the effect of the counselor’s encouraging words spread to the rest of her family.

Solis was the middle of seven children. After seeing Solis thrive in college, all three of her younger sisters followed suit. Today, one of her sisters has a doctorate in public health from UCLA. Two more have engineering degrees from the same school. In addition, her older sister — the county clerk on whom Solis modeled her own early ambitions — went back to school. She’s now in the process of earning her Bachelor of Science degree in business.

It could even be said that Mr. Sanchez’s intervention had a tangible effect on all Californians — whether they like it or not.

In 1994, Solis became the first Hispanic woman elected to the California State Senate. She served aggressively.

During her four terms, she successfully spearheaded legislation to raise the California’s minimum wage and protect poor neighborhoods from being the default locations for landfills. In 2000, her commitment to “environmental justice” made her the first woman ever to win the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

The ripple effects of Ms. Melendez’s scholastic success also spread far and wide.

Before getting to where she is, Melendez was superintendent of the struggling Pomona Unified School District near Los Angeles. Under her tenure, the students’ test scores skyrocketed, so much so that Pomona witnessed record improvements for three consecutive years, and achieved the second-highest jump in California. In 2009, Melendez was named California’s Superintendent of the Year.

“It really is all about expectation,” she told HispanicBusiness Magazine in April. “I firmly believe that the interaction between the student and teacher is the most important that occurs on the school ground.”

Solis says there are many, many more who could thrive if they had someone encouraging them to excel — like how Mr. Sanchez encouraged her.

“He motivated me, he believed in me,” she said. “And I think about if he didn’t do that, and how many other kids didn’t run into him, who could be doing the same thing I’m doing. There’s no magic to it; I wasn’t a 4.0 student. I was a decent student, but I also worked very hard.”

Hispanic Business Magazine Shifting Paradigms

Hispanics Praise Selection of Sotomayor for Supreme Court; Republicans Wary

Hispanics Praise Selection of Sotomayor for Supreme Court; Republicans Wary

Originally published on May 26, 2009
Rob Kuznia–

President Barack Obama today nominated Sonia Sotomayor to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, drawing praise from Hispanic lawmakers and advocacy groups, and rebukes from some Republican leaders.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza, courtesy White House
Official White House photo by Pete Souza, courtesy White House

If confirmed, Sotomayor, who has served on the federal bench for 17 years, would be the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s high court. If approved by Senate, she would bring more federal judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed since 1932, when Justice Benjamin Cardozo was appointed after 18 years on the federal bench.

The nomination comes four months before the start of the Supreme Court’s fall term, and President Obama said he hopes the Senate will confirm her appointment by August. But Republicans warn that it might take longer than that to thoroughly vet her record.

“Our Democratic colleagues have often remarked that the Senate is not a ‘rubber stamp,'” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement today. “Accordingly, we trust they will ensure there is adequate time to prepare for this nomination, and a full and fair opportunity to question the nominee and debate her qualifications.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus today released a statement praising the selection of Sotomayor, a 54-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent who rose to prominence despite being raised poor in the Bronx.

“The nomination of such an overwhelmingly qualified judge to serve on the Supreme Court should be celebrated by all Americans,” said Congressman Charles A. Gonzalez (D-TX), and the CHC’s first Vice Chair. “The additional fact that the President Obama’s nominee will be the first Hispanic on our nation’s highest court is significant and is tangible proof of the strength derived by the diversity represented in American society.”

But in a sign of a potential fight to come, some Republicans have already launched an assault.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee blasted her as a “far left” candidate, but got her first name wrong in the process.

“The appointment of Maria Sotomayor for the Supreme Court is the clearest indication yet that President Obama’s campaign promises to be a centrist and think in a bipartisan way were mere rhetoric,” he said today in a statement. “Sotomayor comes from the far left and will likely leave us with something akin to the ‘Extreme Court’ that could mark a major shift. … If she is confirmed, then we need to take the blindfold off Lady Justice.”

Republicans have tapped a former Justice Department lawyer who worked under President George W. Bush to help the GOP pore over Sotomayor’s record. Elisebeth Cook served as Bush’s assistant attorney general for legal policy.

Meanwhile, not everyone on the left is sold. The New Republic, a left-of-center American Magazine, published a piece in early May called “The Case Against Sotomayor.” The story quoted legal professionals who were critical of her abilities. One unnamed former Second Circuit clerk for another judge said Sotomayor is “not that smart and was a bully on the bench.” The article, written by Jeffrey Rosen, maintained that her decisions sometimes missed the forest for the trees. But it also quoted unnamed sources who praised her. One former clerk for a judge said, “She’s an incredibly impressive person, she’s not shy or apologetic about who she is.”

For his part, President Obama said he selected Sotomayor largely for her “rigorous intellect” and “mastery of the law.”

In a presidential video released this morning, Obama also praised her ability to make decisions “without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather, a fidelity to the Constitution.”

“A judge’s job is to interpret, not make law,” he said.

Sotomayor is a graduate of Yale Law School. Described as a centrist by some and a liberal by others, Sotomayor’s high-profile decisions include the go-ahead for The Wall Street Journal to publish the suicide note of White House attorney Vince Foster. She also sided with labor in the Major League Baseball strike of 1995.

Although widely supported by Democrats, she has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In 1998, she was elevated by President Clinton to the seat she currently holds on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

On Tuesday morning, the Hispanic Bar Association of DC called Sotomayor “one of the most accomplished jurors of her generation.”

“Sotomayor does not shy away from tough decisions,” association officials said in a statement today, citing her 1995 decision that ended the 232-day Major League Baseball players’ strike.

The association also credited her for being “tough on crime.”

“Judge Sotomayor has consistently given police wide leeway to conduct searches and effect arrests … particularly where there are terrorism or public safety concerns involved,” the statement said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to scrutinize her recent decision in an affirmative action case. In Ricci v. DeStefano, Sotomayor sided with two other judges in a ruling against white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. who were denied a promotion after the city tossed the results of an exam that failed to boost the standing of any black candidates. The firefighters appealed, and case will be heard by the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes at age 8. Her father, a tool-and-die worker with a third-grade education, died a year later. She and her younger brother were raised by her single mother, who worked as a nurse and sent her children to Catholic school.

Sotomayor was the class valedictorian of Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, and was awarded a full scholarship to Princeton University. There, she graduated summa cum laude. She attended Yale Law School, and served as editor or the Yale Law Journal. She obtained her law degree in 1979.

After graduation Sotomayor joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a criminal prosecutor, and worked on murder, police brutality and child pornography cases. She worked under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who still holds the office, and who described her as a “fearless and effective prosecutor.”

She served the District Attorneys office for four-and-a-half years before entering private practice, where she focused on intellectual property, international law and arbitration.