Reform advocates in Alum Rock Union Elementary School District celebrated a couple major victories Tuesday night. Superintendent Hilaria Bauer once again dodged the axe and the board finally agreed to terminate at least some controversial contracts with a company hired to manage hundreds of millions of dollars in voter-approved bonds.
“Congratulations,” Alum Rock school board candidate Raymond Mueller wrote in an email the next morning. “We have won a couple of major battles, now it's time for all of us to focus on the war.”
The special meeting came days after state Sen. Jim Beall and Assemblyman Ash Kalra (both Democrats from San Jose) called for a legislative audit and after activists called for a criminal investigation to look into suspected fraud and self-dealing involving the bond management company Del Terra Real Estate.
A state audit released last year already sounded the alarm about potential conflicts-of-interest and mismanagement, but the five-member board—obstructed by a bloc known at the Alum Rock Three, comprising Khanh Tran, Esau Herrera and Dolores Marquez—refused to implement any substantive changes to address those concerns until this week.
The district’s credit rating took a hit after the 2017 audit, and the board’s subsequent failure to correct course prompted the state to place the embattled district under the financial management of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Yet board president Herrera, who received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Del Terra officials in past years, alongside his allies has dutifully defended the Southern California-based contractor despite deafening criticism from constituents and outside agencies.
But it looks like mounting public pressure from parents and district employees is making a difference. Especially since outside officials such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco and state lawmakers have amplified their outrage over the district’s dysfunctional leadership and defended Bauer, who has endured several attempts by the Alum Rock Three to oust or discipline her thanks to the community rallying around her each time.
Today, I stood with parents and community leaders to denounce the Alum Rock School District Board's continued involvement w/ Del Terra Real Estate, and several Board Members' latest attempt to oust Superintendent Hilaria Bauer (a thread): pic.twitter.com/uJptHRSda3
— Sam Liccardo (@sliccardo) May 30, 2018
“They capitulated,” said Jeff Markham, a local parent and one of the organizers behind a grassroots group called Community for Better Alum Rock Schools. “Thankfully, they took no action on the superintendent and they finally did something about Del Terra.”
Joining trustees Andres Quintero and Karen Martinez, Tran broke from the majority to cast the swing vote that ended program management agreements for two bond measures with Del Terra. Though the board allowed a construction management contract to continue, at least the company can no longer oversee its own work.
“We would have preferred that both program management and construction management contracts were canceled, but we did manage to get rid of the fox-guarding-the-henhouse problem,” said Markham, who wore a Luis Miguel shirt for the occasion to rib Herrera for ditching a board meeting earlier this month to watch the Mexican pop star in concert at the SAP Center.
In yet another triumph for reform activists, the board also swapped Marquez with Quintero as chair of the board’s bond oversight committee. Marquez was criticized for holding the oversight committee meetings at times when few, if any, community members could attend.
“Yesterday was a win-win,” Tran told San Jose Inside in a phone call early Wednesday. “Everyone won. The community won, Bauer won, even Del Terra won because they still have business with the district.”
Tran, who previously refused to revoke Del Terra’s agreements, said his break from the Alum Rock Three angered some of his erstwhile allies.
“I know Esau is mad because he almost pushed me when he walked out last night,” Tran said. “I was going to say something, but then was, like, ‘Forget it.’ We’re moving on.”