Oxnard educators want a clean slate at Rio School District

By David Michael Courtland 10/28/2010

With control of Rio School District’s governing board at stake, Rio teachers have launched a grassroots campaign for a favored slate of candidates as the Nov. 2 election approaches.

Former Rio trustee and retired labor organizer Henrietta Macias, Oxnard high school teacher Ramon Rodriguez, business owner Eleanor Torres and receptionist Mayra Sevilla are getting the Rio Teachers Association’s official recommendation, said RTA President Rebecca Barbetti.

“We’re just trying to look for a balanced board,” said Barbetti, adding that these candidates would bring a wider range of age and experience to a board that has tended to be a homogenous group.

The same four are also being endorsed by Oxnard Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in the Oxnard Union High School District, and Rio’s chapter of the California State Employees Association, which represents classified staff.

Macias, Torres, Rodriguez and Sevilla also got the endorsement of Oxnard School District Trustee Denis O’Leary, a vocal critic of the board, who teaches in the Rio School District.

“I interviewed several of the candidates. These were the four who could most help the community,” said O’Leary, who said he is impressed that the board hopefuls have drawn support from multiple organizations. He said OFT’s endorsement shows that the teachers in the high school district want better management of one of their feeder elementary school districts.

“We were very worried we’d be splitting up the vote and working against each other. It was basically the quality of the candidates that got all the groups on board with the same four,” said O’Leary, adding, “I’ve never seen a high school district’s teachers endorse candidates in another district — it just doesn’t happen.”

Barbetti said a campaign circular backing the slate has been mailed, and will be followed up with phone calls from teachers, who will also be canvassing neighborhoods door to door. She said RTA’s campaign has gotten a good response from El Rio residents so far.

“When you explain the issues to them, they’re very supportive,” Barbetti said.

Those issues — ranging from the district’s budget crisis to whether the current school board trustees are good role models — have made for a contentious year in the Rio district.

In March, the school district’s finance director told trustees it needs salary concessions from teachers to avoid $4.25 million in cost overruns by next spring. A stalemate between RTA and the board continues, with the district facing the prospect of state receivership if the board and teachers do not reach an agreement.

Several weeks later, parents angered by Superintendent Sherianne Cotterell’s shoplifting bust last year, followed by former board member Brian Martin’s child molestation arrest, called for their resignations at a protest outside the school district’s office. (Martin was convicted and sentenced to prison for 17 years in May.)

Over the last few months, Barbetti and another Rio teacher have asked for permanent restraining orders against Lynette Lucas, a board supporter — even though she was among the teachers who got pink slips in March — whom they say has menaced them. (Barbetti’s permanent restraining order request is still pending; the other Rio teacher’s request was dropped.)

Earlier this year, Lucas visited local newsrooms in an attempt to get editors interested in her claims of RTA lying and mismanagement. Her effort prompted an internal California Teachers Association investigation of RTA’s finances, which found no wrongdoing.

Barbetti says Lucas took things a step further, whispering threats in her ear at meetings, cornering her against her car door in a parking lot and, most recently, blocking Barbetti’s car with her own.

The highly publicized feuding and scandal has prompted 11 people to run for the four seats available. Incumbents Robert Guillen and Ron Mosqueda are running for re-election against Macias, Torres, Rodriguez and landlord Raymond Amaro for the three seats that were scheduled to become available this year.

Six more — Sevilla, water agency president Mike Barber, facilities supervisor Joe Esquivel, maintenance planner Ed Vega and college student Maria Loera — are running for the seat Martin vacated when he was convicted.

All but Mosqueda and Loera attended a candidate’s forum at Rio Del Norte Elementary School held by the school’s neighborhood council in September.

Macias has been the most outspoken of the candidates, unsparingly attacking the board for financial mismanagement at meetings.

Guillen and Board President Tim Blaylock have countered by citing a 1997 court case summary that they say shows Macias had been fired from a previous job for embezzling from her union chapter, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1036.

But the summary, contained in a 2nd Appellate District Court libel ruling, notes Macias was only accused of misuse of funds and gave up the secretary-treasurer job voluntarily — after the union settled with her for $25,000 before the grievance she filed went to arbitration.

Local 1036 officials said their records didn’t go back far enough to substantiate the story and declined to comment further, but a former Local 1036 member who asked not to be named said a political rival of Macias took advantage of a billing mistake she made on some insurance forms.

“The company pointed out the mistake and refunded the union’s money,” said the source. “Bob Moran, the local president at the time, just let her know about the mistake, and that was the end of it.”

It wasn’t until Macias ran against Moran’s successor, George Hartwell, for local president that the allegations were made.

“It was totally a vendetta,” said the source. “She wasn’t fired, she quit.”   

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