MONTEBELLO – Following months of protests from students, parents and teachers, the Montebello Unified School Board unanimously voted to rescind layoff notices for 233 of its employees.
The action was approved April 6, after board members determined the district was closer to closing a $17 million budget gap.
While over two-thirds of the 333 teachers, administrators and classified staff who received pink slips can now count on keeping their jobs for the 2017-2018 school year, 100 employees who received a second layoff notice late last month are still in danger of being cut.
Meanwhile, activists seeking to recall MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy and Board Member Benjamin Cardenas last week received approval from the County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk’s Office to begin collecting signatures on recall petitions. They blame the board members for the school district’s financial problems.
After receiving several phone calls from Montebello Unified employees alleging fraud and misuse of school district funds, Board Member Ben Cardenas has called for a full forensic audit of MUSD’s finances.
“There was enough to merit a closer look,” he told EGP, explaining he hopes an audit will clear any doubts about the school district’s financial practices.
“The nature of the allegations was important,” he said,
Cardenas’ initial call for the audit came last week when he still held the title of MUSD board president. While the school board will not officially act on his request until its meeting tonight, according to newly appointed Board President Lani Cupchoy, district staff is already looking into firms with the expertise to conduct the work.
The forensic audit will exam MUSD’s accounting procedures, policies, priorities, spending protocols and lines of authority and seek to uncover any theft of cash or inventory, fraudulent payments, corruption, conflicts of interest, bribery, extortion and misstatements.
Cupchoy told EGP conducting the audit would help reassure the public that the school district is being run properly, which is timely given that voters just approved a $300 million school bond in June.
“We are opening our doors,” she told EPG. “We owe it to the public.”
Cardenas also wants the district to set up a tip line where employees and others can anonymously report fraud without fear of retaliation.
“It seemed many [employees] were afraid of speaking out,” Cardenas told EGP.
News of the proposed audit comes on the heels of the controversial firing of Superintendent Susana Contreras-Smith and Chief Financial and Operations Officer Cleve Pell, a longtime MUSD administrator who has served in various upper-management positions, including co-superintendent.
The firing prompted someone to create musdcorruption.com, a website critical of the district that claims the two former administrators were actually fired because they tried to take a stand against corruption. The site also alleges MUSD’s attorney was replaced to hide the cover-up.
Earlier this year, the California School Employees Association (CSEA) Montebello Chapter 505 passed a “vote of no confidence” targeting the MUSD Chief Business Officer Ruben Rojas, who earlier this year was briefly placed on paid administrative leave for what was only described as a personnel issue.
CEA’s no confidence vote accuses Rojas of hiring personal acquaintances, lowering morale district-wide and not adhering to project labor agreements among other issues.
Residents and employees have also expressed disapproval of some contract bids approved by Rojas.
On Wednesday, however, MUSD released a statement announced that it has received a AAA rating from the Fitch Ratings Agency for the $100 million voter-approved school bond to be issued by the district. It’s the “highest possible credit rating any bond issue can receive, including those of the U.S. Federal Government and would save local taxpayers millions of dollar,” according to the announcement.
Rojas said the credit rating “is a testament to the strong fiscal management’ of the district. “We will continue to make smart fiscal decisions that will allow our schools to thrive,” Rojas said.
Cardenas would not divulge details of the allegations, claiming he does not want to prejudice the audit process or enter the realm of speculation. Regardless of the outcome, he said he believes the audit will help the board and public achieve a better understanding of the district’s budget, providing a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to make sure the district is operating efficiently.
“This is the best investment we can make,” he assured.
After hearing rumors of wrongdoing, Linda Nicklas, co-founder of the Montebello watchdog group MATCH90640, told EGP she’s looks forward to the audit.
“We need a independent audit, with absolutely no ties to anyone on the board,” she said.
Cupchoy told EGP she does not believe the audit paints the district in a negative light.
“It’s not something negative or wrong,” she said. “I see it as a safety net.”
Cupchoy told EGP that the district’s number one priority is making sure all money is used to serve its 29,000 students. A fiscal audit will provide guidance and ensure there is equity across the district, she said.
“The audit is not about the finances,” she told EGP. “It’s about investing back in our district.”
Sporting navy blue shirts and wearing “Union Strong” buttons, over 150 teachers, counselors, nurses and other certified personnel of the Montebello Unified School District took to the streets last week to protest what amounts to a short-term, one-time pay bump proposed by the District during union negotiations.
“The district knows there’s money, they just don’t want to spend it,” said Lorraine Richards president of the Montebello Teachers Association, angry that the District has refused to raise employee pay long-term.
“The S-word is going around, we hope it doesn’t get to that point,” added David Navar, MTA’s bargaining chairperson.
Lea este artículo en Español: Negociaciones del Sindicato de MUSD Están Estancadas
Despite a light drizzle in the air, members of MTA – which represents 1,400 certified district employees – rallied at Montebello Park before marching the three blocks to Montebello Unified headquarters where the April 7 school board meeting was about to take place.
“The district can’t say they are putting students first if they are putting teachers last,” Richards told EGP.
For the first time in over two decades, District officials and MTA have been unable to reach a contract agreement. A state mediator has been called in to try to break the impasse, with the first meeting scheduled to take place yesterday. There was no word on the negotiations as of EGP’s press time Wednesday.
At issue is Montebello Unified’s offer to raise employee pay 2.3 percent retroactive to the start of the current school year. The union balked at the offer and instead wants an ongoing, 8.1 percent pay increase to their salary. Montebello Unified can afford the pay hike, say union representatives.
Although enrollment is on the decline, Montebello Unified is expected to receive more revenue due the state’s adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula, which gives more money to school districts with large numbers of English learners, foster youth and low-income students to try to narrow the achievement gap among these students.
Union employees received a 5 percent pay hike in 2013-2014 followed by an additional 4.5 percent hike in 2014-2015. Under the District’s latest offer, teachers and other certified personnel would receive a one-time check to cover the proposed 2.3 percent hike for this year, but stay at the current pre-supplement level next year, Richards explained. “Without an ongoing raise that money isn’t going to be there next year,” she added.
Saying educators are the “heart” of MUSD’s mission to prepare students to be successful leaders, Superintendent Susan Contreras-Smith told EGP the District is committed to resolving the current impasse in negotiations.
“We are confidant a conclusion that supports the best interest of our students and the overall well-being of our district short-term and long-term,” Contreras-Smith said.
Many MUSD employees believe, however, that district officials are too busy campaigning for a $300 million dollar bond measure on the June 7 ballot and not focusing on taking care of staff. If approved, bond money would be used to upgrade classrooms and address infrastructure needs.
During the school board meeting, speakers demanded the District reach an agreement with the union or suffer the consequences.
“It was us, the teachers, who made the phone calls to get parents to vote for the previous bond,” Douglas Patzkowski reminded the board.
“If you want us to use our time to get votes for bonds we need to have a bond to you,” he warned board members.
Speaker after speaker reminded the board of the added burden new instruction methods, such as Common Core, is putting on teachers, who are being required to create the curriculum themselves. They reminded the board that teachers take money out of their own pockets to pay for books, holiday decorations for the classroom, and even training materials and photocopies.
“Don’t forget we do the work that makes you look good,” Margie Granado said.
Disrespect to the teachers is equivalent to disrespect to her child, said one parent.
“They take care of our children” when we’re not there, said Tiffany Sanchez. “So when it’s time to vote, we’ll remember this.”
Following meeting protocols, district officials did not directly respond to comments made by speakers or on the terms of ongoing negotiations, but instead asked speakers to be patient through the mediation process.
“This board feels very confident we are going to come up with a favorable solution,” MUSD President Ben Cardenas assured. “We understand there’s a lot of passion and we’re willing to listen, we’re just asking you to be patient.”
Hector Chacon, the longest sitting member on the school board, said he hopes a consensus is reached for the benefit of the children.
“Hopefully we reach a fair and reasonable settlement for all parties so we can move to the business of why we are here,” Chacon said.
Their assurances, however, did little to calm tensions among teachers who say they were understanding during troubling economic times, but no more.
“When there were budget cuts we took cuts,” said Alicia Ramos, a teacher at La Merced.
“Now the district has funding [but] it’s not being used to compensate the people who work directly involved with students,” she complained.
The District had no trouble giving long-term pay raises to its superintendents, MTA members reminded the board.
“Is your mortgage a one-time payment? Do you have one-time bills,” asked Granados, turning to the MTA members in the room. “If an ongoing raise is good enough for the highest paid employees, it’s good enough for us.”
With a new face behind the dais, the Montebello Unified School District Board of Education began preparing for a new year.
Elected officials, family, teachers, parents and students filled the boardroom last Thursday during a special meeting that welcomed newcomer Joanna Flores – a Commerce resident and professor at East Los Angeles College – and recognized outgoing board member David Vela for his eight years of service.
Flores and incumbent Edgar Cisneros received the highest number of votes to fill two seats that were up for election on Nov. 3, ousting Vela from the seat he held for two terms.
“Joanna [Flores] is more than just another woman to diversify the board, she brings the passion and intensity of being the first of her siblings to graduate from college,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia before administrating her the oath of office.
Flores said she had vowed to return to the community that had invested in her in hope of improving the public school system.
“Others are slow to give credit to our students in public schools but quick to criticize,” she said.
“So now the hard work begins,” she added.
Following a standing ovation for Flores and a quick chant of “Si Se Pudo” from the crowd, Board Member Lani Cupchoy gushed about the “feminist moment” and having another lady serve on the board.
“As a high percentage of woman are seeking higher education we are looking at more woman seeking leadership positions,” said MUSD Superintendent Susana Contreras-Smith excitedly.
“She earned her seat,” chimed in Cisneros. “If she works half as hard as she did on her campaign the students will benefit greatly,” he said.
During the meeting, Board Member Ben Cardenas was elected president as part of the body’s annual reorganization. Cupchoy was appointed vice president and Hector Chacon board clerk.
In the last two years, the district – which covers Bell Gardens, Commerce, Montebello and portions of East Los Angeles, Monterey Park and Pico Rivera – was tasked with implementing common core standards, reworking its budget to encompass the goals of the Local Control Funding Formula and supporting the 10 career pathways across the district.
“We had a year of shared vision, shared respect and shared sacrifice,” reflected Cardenas, before going on to outline his agenda for the year ahead.
“My focus as president will be fiscal solvency, we need to look for efficiency.”
Cardenas said he would pay particular attention to special education, within 60 days putting together a special task force to assist in identifying any shortfalls in the program.
The district’s $600 million in capital improvement needs is one of his biggest concerns, Cardenas said.
“We will have to ask ourselves if we need to put a bond on the ballot to provide our children with a 21st century learning environment,” he remarked.
Contreras-Smith echoed Cardenas’ comments; saying among the challenges facing the district is its ability to bring 21st century technology to students so they are college ready.
“The results-driven, young vision of the district is a refreshing perspective,” Contreras-Smith told EGP, referring to the collective younger age of the board.
Cisneros, the board’s out going president, was acknowledged for his efforts to give more attention to the southern part of the district.
“For some time, Bell Gardens felt like the district’s stepchild but you changed that,” said Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez.
The meeting also included a salute to outgoing board member Vela, who was honored with several proclamations, awards and recognitions.
“David has been a model for other leaders, particularly young Latinos,” said Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang.
Speaker after speaker highlighted Vela’s work with anti-bullying, lobbying for district funds and his role implementing the pathway school model and curriculum district wide.
“I know you poured your heart and soul into these kids,” said Joseph Martinez on behalf of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis.
“The next official to take on that role has some really big shoes to fill.”
From mayors to PTA presidents, all acknowledged their belief that this was not the last time they expect to see Vela in public office, adding they look forward to the next step in his career.
“Once a leader, always a leader,” said Chacon, the school board’s longest sitting member. “Montebello Unified will always be your home.”