Teachers practically in full revolt over low salaries. Allegations of violations of state public meeting laws. One board trustee sent to exile miles away. Discordant discussions of steep school enrollment declines. Another board trustee bursting into tears.
Deeply divided and torn asunder, the dysfunction that is the Escondido Union School District (EUSD) was in full public display on Thursday. It wasn’t a pretty sight and spoiler alert, the end of the educational turmoil is far from near.
EUSD entered a kind of Alice in Wonderland scenario for a six-hour board meeting featuring the voice of EUSD trustee Jose Fragozo. The exiled trustee attended, if one can call it that, through a HAL-like — for “2001: A Space Odyssey” fans — phone connection. Often times, connections cut out or sounded like voices from the underwater deep or at a cavernous airport.
A highly controversial temporary restraining order filed by EUSD superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra, deputy superintendent Leila Sackfield, assistant superintendents Kelly Prins and Kevin Rubow and publicly supported by Board member Paulette Donnellon, against Fragozo necessitated his phone-only participation.
EUSD administrators said Fragozo approached them in a threatening manner on numerous occasions. He said he simply disagreed with them on policy and never crossed any red lines.
While Fragozo couldn’t attend, his shadow loomed large and long across the Board’s Aldergrove Avenue meeting room. A steady stream of supporters assailed school board trustees sitting at the regular board meeting over the restraining order and district policies.
Coincidentally, school officials and Fragozo were scheduled for a 9 a.m. appearance today, Friday, at Department 21 of Vista Superior Court to attempt to work out some kind of settlement of their disputes.
Long day’s journey into night
Embattled school district trustees began their journey through the looking glass at 5 p.m. with a session behind closed doors. That wasn’t even the controversial part of the evening, not even close.
Fireworks ensued in earnest during public comments when representatives of about 100 sign-carrying district teachers, and supporters, at the meeting began a long critique of board trustees over low teacher salaries, despite top administrator salaries that were among the highest in San Diego County.
Wrapped up in the long chorus of criticisms of board action was the Fragozo affair, that some historical types compared to The Dreyfus Affair during which justice was miscarried in late 19th Century France. The only Latino representative on the five-member board in an overwhelmingly majority-Latino district, the absent trustee was loudly defended by supporters throughout the evening.
Fragozo couldn’t do that in person, obviously. However, he had, for what it was worth, supporters galore lambasting his fellow school board trustees for a litany of institutional failures. Supporters alleged Fragozo was scapegoated for pointing out, and attempting to address, issues drilling down to the District’s very DNA.
“Stop wasting time and stop paying these attorney fees,” Kim Garnier said. “Jose Fragozo has to phone into this meeting like he’s a maniac and (the Board) gives themselves a (pay) raise.”
Chris Garnier followed suit with accusations of violations of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law. However, it took several minutes of back-and-forth between Garnier and EUSD Board president Joan Gardner before Garnier’s points could be made. With supporters saying, “Let him speak,” Garnier eventually was allowed to proceed.
“It’s a shame Mr. Fragozo is not here,” Garnier said, adding he would bring a Brown Act violation lawsuit against the Board. “We have a weak link in (superintendent) Ibarra. It’s a shame to me these teachers are here who are not getting a pay raise and your superintendent is the eighth-highest paid superintendent in San Diego County school districts.”
Carmen Miranda, a former Escondido educational association president, also spoke passionately in Fragozo’s defense. “It’s embarrassing we’re going to court,” she said, “It’s a waste of money that should be going to the kids. We had hoped you would change things, Mr. Ibarra. Instead, you’re going to court and lying…You should resign.”
Don Arballo, head of the Escondido Elementary Educators Association, followed with a challenge to school administrators. While noting teachers deserved a 20 percent salary increase since they were underpaid compared to other districts, he asked Ibarra to take a 20 percent salary cut that would move him just one notch down in the highest paid county school superintendent list.
Time for recess, so play nice
With that, it was time for recess, although that may be a foreign concept in a district divided like two Koreas. Gardner and Fragozo — on computer speaker — went back and forth on the sound quality of the unique board call-in concept. Eventually, that was resolved, somewhat, the board went back into session and actually began discussions of educational matters.
It was a tale of two rooms, one large and one small. As about 20 people remained in the huge board meeting room, Fragozo held sway in a small one-bedroom apartment about two miles away with two supporters, two reporters and a media publisher in attendance. With a laptop computer and smart phone, he tried to follow the meeting albeit through a glass darkly.
This was the other end of the rabbit’s hole with sound surging and fading through the remainder of the night. Sometimes, gurgled transmissions from the board meeting were impossible to follow. Other times, Fragozo strained and leaned to speak into a smart phone as the meeting hummed along.
As an aside, with the line muted momentarily, Fragozo said, “You have to have that mentality that you want to change. You want to improve. Latinos make up 70 percent of the district and I want to be able to retain our kids whether Hispanic or Anglo.”
A key factor in discussion about teacher salaries and educational priorities revolved around the bleak portrait of shrinking district enrollment despite countywide increases in student populations. Observers said this went to the heart of the restraining order dispute and other district arguments over salaries and educational priorities.
Michael Taylor, EUSD assistant superintendent for business services, said enrollment numbers dictated 80 percent of district revenues. Enrollment, reportedly, had dropped from 20,000 students in the K-8 district in the last 10 years and was stagnant from 2004 to 2010, he said.
Fragozo said this all-important discussion was carrying on past 10:30 p.m. when most everyone had left the meeting and urged it be placed on the next agenda earlier in the evening. “It’s really unfair to talk about something so important at 10:30 p.m.,” he said.
During this discussion, EUSD Board vice-president, Zesty Harper, broke down in tears saying, “We all have to get together on this.” Gardner, the newly elected Board president, said to her, “Don’t get down. We have great people.”
The meeting continued with consent agenda items and the likes, but Alice long since had fallen through the rabbit hole.
Next scheduled EUSD board meeting is Feb. 11. Between that time and today, a Superior Court judge will rule on the Fragozo affair and the Board may, or may not, be subject to additional open public meeting laws litigation.
So far, the only ones who appeared to be winning this war of wills were the attorneys. Otherwise, the beat of discord seemed destined to go on through the foreseeable future, EUSD students notwithstanding.