The Alum Rock Union Elementary School District gave incendiary board president Khanh Tran the boot only to appoint a like-minded successor, Esau Ruiz Herrera.
Vice President Andrés Quintero—one of Tran’s biggest critics on the board—would have been the next in line had the president resigned from the five-member board instead of being voted out Wednesday. But Tran convened the special meeting on a night when Quintero was unable to attend.
The stunning coup on the third day of the new school year prompted shouts and jeers from the overflow crowd of about 150 parents and district employees.
“Set up!” shouted Dilza Gonzalez, a 26-year-old mother of three students in the district. “That’s a set up!”
Raymond Mueller, a parent who initially commended Tran for bowing out before realizing who would replace him, turned his back to the board, cupped his hands over his mouth and chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
The audience followed his lead as the trustees hurriedly filed out of the room.
Critics of the so-called Alum Rock Three—the bloc of Tran, Herrera and trustee Dolores Marquez-Frausto—said the abrupt changing of the guard will trigger legal action and re-energize efforts to recall some of the board members.
“It looked like they had this all scripted going in,” said Jeffrey Markham, a member of Citizens for Better Alum Rock Schools, the grassroots group formed to find and support future trustee candidates and advance the recall campaign.
Tran ostensibly convened the 11th hour meeting to talk about firing Superintendent Hilaria Bauer or hiring a deputy superintendent that would report directly to the board, recommendations that come as prosecutors investigate the district for suspected fraud. The board president’s ouster followed an hour of impassioned testimony from Bauer’s supporters who feared they could lose her to Tran’s power play.
“Our community deserves consistent and stable leadership in the superintendent role,” Principal Sandra Puerta-Sarmiento read from a letter signed by every principal and vice principal in the district. “Students, families, teachers and staff cannot build upon progress and thrive when there is constant turnover in the administration.”
Bauer, whose four years at the helm make her the district’s longest-serving superintendent in the past 15 years, listened from the dais as one speaker after another commended the contributions she made to the largely Latino and low-income East Side district. Community members also slammed the board for micromanaging the superintendent and her staff.
The already strained relationship between the board of trustees and the district administration became combative soon after Tran became president nine months ago. The unpredictable first-term trustee, whose bombast and Twitter volleys about “fake news” have drawn comparisons with the 45th U.S. president, has repeatedly accused Bauer and her staff of mishandling fire repairs at Mathson Middle School.
All the while, Tran has denounced a state audit that raised serious concerns about Del Terra Group, the company hired by the district to manage hundreds of millions of dollars in bond construction. State investigators found that trustees let the contract lapse at one point while continuing to pay for services. When the district’s chief business officer sounded the alarm about potential fraud, trustees ignored the warning and renewed its contract with Del Terra, which has been named in scandals in other school districts.
Issues raised in the state probe are under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office. Last month, another report noted violations in the fire repairs, including an illegal emergency declaration, failure to ratify contracts and surpassing approved budget limits.
“Not only is this distracting us from focusing on our students,” Markham said, “it takes a huge financial toll on the district.”
Because of the board’s refusal to follow advice from state auditors, he noted, the district’s credit rating got bumped down. That alone will cost the district untold millions of dollars in future bond fees, Markham pointed out.
Meanwhile, bond money that should have paid for new bathrooms and air conditioning went to new construction, Markham said. As a result, he added, students have to endure rundown facilities and sweltering classrooms during heat waves like the one this week.
Parents will meet in the coming days to start organizing their recall campaign.