The Fairfax School District held their long-awaited town hall meeting on Thursday night in the gymnasium at Fairfax Junior High, but it wasn’t long before the mood took a turn for the worse.
Community members have been requesting the event for months because they want the opportunity to brief board members in a public forum about the decisions they have made. Participants targeted board chairman Palmer Moland and trustees Alma Rios and Jose Luis Tapia, who voted together on a series of controversial issues.
But Tapia was a no-show, and community members quickly became frustrated with Rios during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting.
“We see that you are not doing your job. You are not even ready to answer easy questions,” relative Alicia Sanchez said through a translator.
Acting Superintendent Lora Brown said Tapia “had a personal matter to deal with”.
Since the board sat in December, it has not only pissed off employees, parents and community members, but also caught the attention of the Kern County Superintendent of the Financial Crisis Analysis Team. and school management and a Kern County grand jury, which released a report saying the district was governed by a “school board in crisis.”
The questions were about issues that have divided the board at previous meetings. Speakers asked about the board’s decision to hire an outside lawyer and get rid of the longtime General Counsel Schools Legal Service after giving him a positive opinion. They also referred to the no-confidence motion filed against Moland in December, which claimed he harassed district employees. Moland has said he wants information released that shows his side.
Several speakers urged the board on the grand jury’s recommendations, including that the home addresses of board members be verified and that Moland resign as chairman by June 30. Moland said the board is working on responding to the various recommendations.
“If the board decides they would like to see a new president, that’s their decision,” he said.
“You are supposed to speak”
Neither Rios nor Tapia discussed their controversial decisions in meetings, such as the decision to hire law firms. With Tapia absent, speakers pressed Rios with little success.
Lisa Delgado, a district teacher, said Rios’ silence in meetings makes it appear as if she might be speaking with other people outside the meeting in violation of Brown’s Law, an open meeting law. . She asked Rios to clarify how she made her decisions.
“I don’t know why the others vote the way they do,” Rios said. “I try to do my best when I vote.”
Delgado and administrator Victoria Coronel asked him to elaborate, but Rios repeated his response.
Anger against Rios built up during the meeting. Sometimes Brown or Elana Rivkin-Haas, a lawyer for the district’s new acting law firm, Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill, would step in to answer a question for her.
Maria Hernandez, a community member whose children graduated from Fairfax, told Rios to come out if she couldn’t answer questions.
“I thought it was a community meeting. I didn’t think it was a lawyers meeting. She answers all questions,” she said, pointing to Rivkin. -Haas. “What is this? I’m very pissed off. You’re the one who’s supposed to talk.”
The lawyer arranges a special meeting
Prior to the town hall, the board held a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. One item Brown asked for on the agenda recommended that the board approve the use of schools’ legal services, the former district attorney general, to conclude two long-standing legal cases.
“We have two outstanding legal issues that we need to sort out with the schools legal department, and we’re at the very end of those legal issues, and it makes more sense to end with this law firm before paying all of those many. hours to have a new law firm catch up on these two ongoing cases, ”Brown told the board.
The board meeting was slightly disjointed, with Moland arriving 10 minutes late and not arriving in person until 5:54 p.m., shortly before the board went behind closed doors. . Rios, the council clerk, opened the meeting at 5:38 p.m. and Moland showed up to the meeting on Zoom shortly after.
Rios requested that the item regarding the schools legal service be removed from the agenda and deferred to the next meeting. Coronel requested that a motion be left on the agenda. Rivkin-Haas said the board should take a roll-call vote to remove the item from the agenda.
When Moland joined the meeting on Zoom, he said he felt all matters would be transferred to the new law firm. He asked for an estimate of the cost of transferring these cases.
“I can’t give you an estimate, just that it would take many hours for a new law firm to get up to speed and immerse themselves in these two issues,” Brown said.
Rivkin-Haas recommended that the board approve the agenda and move on. She asked for a motion and a second on the agenda.
“And then we’ll have a recorded vote. Ms. Rios, would you like to take the recorded vote or would you like me to? Rivkin-Haas asked.
Rios waved his hand in assent. Rivkin-Haas continued to lead the remainder of the open session until Moland arrived, reading the articles, calling for motions, and conducting roll-call votes. This included the element that would have allowed the Schools Legal Department to complete its legal affairs. The question was raised during the town hall meeting.
“I know you’re really smart, and I know you can handle a board meeting, but I’m sorry you weren’t elected,” said Laura Gaytan, a former student and district secretary. .
Gaytan cited the council statutes, which state that if the council chairman is absent, the clerk serves as chairman. If both are absent, the board can choose a president pro tempore, the policy says.
Gaytan asked Rios to answer why she broke board policy. She also said it appeared to be a conflict of interest if a lawyer organized a meeting when it appeared that her firm could benefit from one of the agenda items.
“The matter on the agenda involving law firms did not involve my firm,” Rivkin-Haas said. “And I was just helping to sort out procedural matters, which the board is authorized to ask their legal counsel to do.”
Jamie Henderson, management consultant at KCSOS, was not present at the meeting, but expressed concern.
“Based on what was reported to us, it is possible that they violated their board policies in the way the board meeting was conducted,” said Henderson.
He added, “Having lawyers to advise the board is appropriate, but I have never seen a lawyer lead a school board meeting.”