August 7, 1996
By Yolanda Reynolds
The July 18 meeting of the Alum Rock Union Elementary School Board began with It special ceremony in recognition of the thirty-one years of medical services provided by Dr. Alvin Nickel. Dr. Nickel explained that he began his practice with a specialty in voice disorders with ofﬁces in Los Altos and the eastside of San Jose. Upon locating his practice there, he became distressed by the many put down remarks that residents of neighboring areas made about the Alum Rock area. He explained. This is where l began my practice and l felt that we could do something special in the Alum Rock Elementary School District.” Thus, began a long and obviously mutually satisfying association lasting for 31 years.
Nickel said that, through the years, he was able to help young people overcome voice disorders than had set them apart from their peers. He also helped parents get the medical services required to correct their children’s voice problems.
The Board meeting appeared to be on its way to a rather routine evening, but it was not long before the Board President Esau Herrera pulled some items from the ‘consent agenda’ for discussion. Herrera sternly reminded Superintendent Pedro Perales that the District needed to be far more diligent in seeking parity for minority and women owned businesses. Herrera stressed the importance of public solicitation as a means of obtaining an adequate pool of applicants for the range of contract opportunities with the District.
Later, the evening’s discourse was enlivened by a letter from a District legal advisor, E. Luis Saenz to Superintendent Perales in which he responded to a request for an investigation into the propriety of a service contract between Eugene Flemate and the District for professional services.
Board member Alvarez had asked the Superintendent to request advice from the District’s legal counsel as to the appropriateness of a request for approval of a contract, “not to exceed $7,000” to Flermate that had begun on Feb. 7. 1996. This contract evidently was entered into between Board President Esau Herrera. on behalf of the Board and the District, and came before the full Board for approval on the consent agenda for payment of $2,595.75 for service provided by Flemate and ending March 14,1996 – the same day approval was sought from the full Board.
Alvarez had asked for legal counsel as to whether Board President Herrera has violated the Brown Act requirements regarding open meeting rules and if there has been such a violation that a ‘cure and correct resolution’ be recommended.
The superintendent wrote a letter to Saenz, one of the two legal counsels to the District, seeking advice on the matter. Saenz, in a letter dated July 10, indicated that, by rules of the “State of California Rules of Professional Conduct governing the practice of law on California,” he was required to disclose in writing to his clients “any legal business, financial, or personal relationship an attorney has had with a party or a witness that would substantially affect the attorney’s representation.”
To this disclosure requirement, Saenz indicates, in his letter, that he had been an associate of Flemate’s – from “August 7. 1991 through July 30, 1993. Saenz is no longer an associate of the firm but Saenz indicates that the parting was “amicable.” Saenz says that, if he were to ﬁnd Flemate in violation, Saenz could beneﬁt since their legal assignment at the District is shared.
Saenz, in his letter indicates that he is currently responsible for all labor relations and employment matters concerning classiﬁed employees while Flemate has responsibility for labor relations and employee matters for certiﬁcated employees.
Saenz further states, “I have ﬁnancially contributed to Mr. Herrera’s campaigns for the Board and for a Santa Clara County Superior Court judicial seat.” He asked that he be notified of the above-mentioned items were a concern to the Board of Trustees.
The District would be wise to hire a “neutral” party in this matter because to do otherwise could invite law suits.
Board President Herrera indicated that the issue raised by Alvarez would be agendized for a decision at the August meeting.
It was when Herrera ran for the Superior Court seat that he came under severe criticism as a scofflaw for failing to pay thousands of dollars in parking violations.
Bill paying problems seem to haunt Herrera. Recently retired print shop owner, Forrest Crumply, informed a group of community activists that in his twenty years of printing, Herrera was the only political candidate that failed to pay his printing bill without even seeking a way to retire the debt. Crumply owned and operated Fidelity Printing in San Jose, until his retirement several years ago.
Another item for discussion and action by the Board that evening was a proposal by Trustee Tony Alexander to increase Special Education support staff in District. The 1996-97 Alum Rock District budget that Superintendent Perales had recommended had already been discussed and approved by the Board. In that budget, Perales recommended a Special Education budget that, according to a District spokeswoman, met the County guidelines for the staffing of such a program which serves emotionally and mentally handicapped students.
If the board had approved Alexander’s proposal, the added staff would have cost the District over $101,000 land over time cost the District over time cost even more. Trustee Juanita Ramirez reminded the Board and those present at the board meeting of the wrenching cutbacks that the District underwent just a few short years ago in order to avert bankruptcy, due to an over extended budget. Previous Trustees and administration had led the District into staff contracts and program that exceeded the District’ ability to pay for them. The District had also tentatively agreed to give away needed playground space at San Antonio Elementary to accommodate the space needs of the soon to be built Mexican Heritage Gardens.
Most aggravating to the parents at that time was that while teachers were enjoying one of the highest pay scales in one county, the students in the District were among the lowest in academic performance in the County, even when adjustments were made for comparative income and language ability. Also aggravating was that in an area bereft to open space less playgrounds would be available for the children. In fact, the remaining space would not have met State student grounds space standards.
As these problems became apparent, three District residents decided to run for office. They were Félix Alvarez, Juanita Ramírez and Alex Salazar. Alvarez is a long-time parent, and community advocate in the Eastside. Both Salazar and Ramírez were former employees of the District and had special insight into the needs of the students and the issues swirling around the troubled District. Alvarez is the founder and Executive Director of the Teatro de Los Pobres, a community based, non-profit community center.
These three Board members can be credited with bringing solvency to the District. However, they are continuously and strongly criticized by an education reporter and the editorial board of the local daily.
Salazar, a former District Administrator resigned from the Board and, in a contentious election, Tony Alexander, President of tire local chapter of the NAACP, was elected to the Board.
Trustees Alexander and Bill Horn, along with Herrera, frequently constitute a majority that appears to be reverting of the ‘business as usual’ that almost put the District into receivership and out of local control, prior to the election of Alvarez, Ramírez and Salazar.
Alexander’s proposal to increase staffing failed in a 2-2 vote. Horn was absent. Herrera promised to bring the proposal before the Board when Horn is expected to be present.
The proposal has serious budget implications. Superintendent Perales explained that normally he waits until funding amounts are secure before adding arty expenses to an adopted balanced budget. Should more money not be available, cuts would be required elsewhere if the Board were to approve Alexander’s proposal.
Several parents, though sympathetic to the special needs of students in the Special Education program, pointed out that approximately only a third of the students were actually from Alum Rock School District and that perhaps it was time for the participating districts to take a turn at this area wide program. They also pointed out that every department and program and all sectors of the school district staff underwent severe cuts in order to balance the budget and that they greatly feared creating another situation requiring another round of cuts.
An item for discussion arose later that, for many Alum Rock observers, is symptomatic of politicized decision making and exemplary as well of the temptation of some to engage in a public display of concern for public participation while, in fact, deflecting accountability front those elected to make those often-uncomfortable decisions. That was a proposal by Herrera to “appoint a parent to the board as an ex-officio member” with the “fullest participation as allowable “by law.” That obvious lack of accountability for decision making was challenged by the District’s school Teachers Association president, Colin Ford who spoke against Herrera’s proposal. He suggested instead that, if the Board is serious about parent participation the board should let the parents elect” two new Board members. Ford had previously pointed out that “this (Herrera’s proposal) would be an anomaly” since it could be that with six members, tie votes could be frequent. Herrera in his proposal had indicated exactly the Parent Association President that he wanted appointed.
His proposal died for lack of a second.
Herrera, later in the evening commended Perales for submitting his resignation from his position in time to allow sufficient time for the district to find a new Superintendent before Perales’ contract would expire. Herrera then went on to suggest that a selection process begin immediately.
After much discussion regarding the proper process and the time needed to actually select the new Superintendent, Herrera promised that preliminary discussions would begin in August and requested names of possible search consultants.
The August 8 meeting will likely be lively, since several items will be on the agenda that will likely engender much discussion.
Regarding the Counsel and contract issue, Perales suggested that the Board had several options on this matter. One would be to disregard the potential conflict of interest present and hire Saenz to conduct the requested investigation or to engage another lawyer. Hopefully an attorney who is familiar with and specializing in school law would be hired.
Flemate has been a long time legal counsel of the Mexican American Community Services Agency, a community service program closely allied with the principals involved in the Mexican Heritage Gardens.
Educators and the entire public educational process, have been under increasing scrutiny by policy makers and the general tax paying public. More and more is expected of teachers while an understanding of the many inﬂuences on a child’s ability learn has deepened the ability of a parents and even professionals to keep abreast of all the facets involved in making a school work is even more challenging, as is the ability to raise the required funding for a viable educational program.
Learning is taking place in the Alum Rock Union School Elementary District. That was evident several meetings ago when students were present at a meeting to demonstrate new and innovative programs in reading and math that were most impressive.
At recent meeting, there has usually been at least one presentation, if not several, that demonstrate a genuine professional interest in providing the best learning environment and opportunity to the diverse student population that the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District serves. It is ever more important that parents become and involved even as grandparents. At the last meeting, two grandparents spoke before the Board with their concerns. There is a need for more parents and concerned residents to become involved. As Herrera stated, “this is big business where you have a budget of over $60 million.”
Beyond that, the nation’s future depends upon the wisdom exercised in facilitating the best learning experience for all our children.
The next School Board meeting for the Alum rock District is scheduled for August 8 at 7pm in the Boardroom of the District Ofﬁces at 2930 Gay Ave. © La Oferta Newspaper.