MUSD Revokes Layoff Notices; Recall Moves Forward

April 12, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Trabajadores Sindicales de MUSD Apuntan Hacia Cupchoy y Cárdenas

March 9, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Durante años, el Distrito Escolar Unificado de Montebello era el lugar indicado para aquellos interesado en trabajar en el sistema educativo preescolar hasta la secundaria.

La moral de los empleados se había mantenido bastante alta durante los recortes presupuestarios de la Gran Recesión y el distrito escolar se mantuvo relativamente libre de escándalos; un marcado contraste con algunas de las ciudades en donde están ubicadas las escuelas de MUSD.

Pero mucho ha cambiado en los últimos meses y algunos empleados de MUSD ahora están pidiendo que las cabezas de los jefes empiecen a rodar, comenzando con el revoco de la presidenta de la junta directiva, Lani Cupchoy, y de Benjamín Cárdenas, miembro del directorio.

Los dos recibieron una petición formal de revoco el 2 de marzo en otra reunión acalorada de la junta escolar. Empleados del distrito, padres y estudiantes se hicieron presentes y protestaron contra la reciente decisión de despedir a casi 500 empleados con tal de intentar controlar un déficit presupuestario de $30 millones.

Esta es la primera vez que se lanza una petición de revoco contra un miembro del consejo, o en este caso, contra dos.

“Somos Montebello, una vez que este movimiento se ponga en marcha ustedes no van a ser capaces de desacelerarnos”, dijo el ex miembro del consejo escolar Frank Morales. “Buena suerte en noviembre; nuevos sheriffs llegarán”.

Al principio del día, un grande grupo de estudiantes de la Escuela Secundaria de Montebello salió de clases en solidaridad con los trabajadores que están perdiendo sus trabajos y a la vez desatando una tormenta de cobertura de los medios de comunicación.

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Cientos de estudiantes y empleados de MUSD protestaron contra los despidos el 2 de marzo afuera de las oficinas centrales del distrito. Foto de EGP por Nancy Martínez

Ellos caminaron hacia la sede del distrito donde el organizador de la marcha, Jorge Salazar, le dijo a la junta que lamentarán su decisión de despedir a los trabajadores.

El distrito siempre ha logrado mantenerse fuera de los titulares. Pero ahora, ante un déficit presupuestario de varios millones de dólares, despidos masivos en todo el distrito, acusaciones de mala administración por parte del jefe de operaciones del distrito y con las peticiones de retiro, MUSD está en crisis.

“Los medios no están aquí para mostrar el lado positivo del distrito”, advirtió Lorraine Richards, presidenta del sindicato de maestros, MTA. “Esto es negativo y afectará nuestra inscripción”.

La Asociación de Empleados de la Escuela de California (CSEA, por sus siglas en inglés) aprobó la semana pasada la promesa de llevar la crisis al público.

En una reunión del Concejo de la Ciudad de Pico Rivera -donde Cárdenas es el subdirector de la ciudad- el trabajador de mantenimiento John Nieto le dijo al consejo que los empleados del distrito no confían. Además, pidió que el consejo investigue cómo es fue que Cárdenas consiguió “la posición de buena paga” en su ciudad.

Nieto sugirió que la contratación de Cárdenas se hizo como un “favor político”.“Es un claro mensaje para el consejo, él trabaja allí y tenemos problemas con él en nuestro distrito”, dijo Lloyd Garrison, presidente del Capítulo 500 de la CSEA.

La decisión de la junta directiva del pasado mes de noviembre de despedir a la superintendente Susana Contreras-Smith y al jefe veterano de negocios Cleve Pell, está atizando más las llamas. La decisión irritó a los miembros de la CSEA, pero fue apoyada por el sindicato de maestros que ya había emitido su propio voto de censura contra Contreras-Smith.

“Su avaricia ha herido a demasiados estudiantes”, le dijo Pell a Cárdenas durante la reunión de la semana pasada. Pell ahora dice que tiene la intención de postularse para el consejo si el revoco se autoriza.

El directorio eligió a Rubén Rojas para reemplazar a Pell, a pesar de haber recibido un voto de censura de los trabajadores sindicales. Rojas ha sido acusado desde entonces de falsificar su currículo, de emplear a conocidos personales, de no adherir a los acuerdos laborales y ahora es culpado por los problemas financieros actuales del distrito.

“Nuestro personal está siendo tratado injustamente por la mala administración del dinero por Rojas”, afirma Santiago López, estudiante de la Escuela Preparatoria de Montebello, diciendo que es Rojas quien debe ser despedido.

Rojas se escabulló de la reunión durante un receso no programado convocado por Cupchoy, tratando de evitar el aluvión de acusaciones y las peticiones de su despido.

“Creo que [Rojas] tiene algo en el tablero”, especuló un profesor que pidió no ser nombrado por miedo a represalias. Él le dijo a EGP que “tiene que ser algo grande, como de la magnitud de Ron Calderón”, refiriéndose a la convicción de corrupción del ex senador de Montebello.

Los legisladores estatales anunciaron la semana pasada que están solicitando una auditoría estatal independiente de las finanzas de MUSD a la luz de la advertencia de la Oficina de Educación del Condado de Los Ángeles de que el distrito está en peligro de no cumplir con sus obligaciones financieras. El distrito se enfrentará a un déficit presupuestario de más de $30 millones durante los próximo dos años.

Para sorpresa de muchos, Chacón, el único miembro del directorio que votó en contra de los recortes, anunció que no buscaría la reelección este otoño por el cargo que ha ocupado durante 24 años.

Él cuestionó si la situación financiera de Montebello Unified es tan grave como Rojas lo ha pintado a ser, diciendo que él continuaría abogando a favor del distrito y de sus estudiantes.

“Esta junta está enfrentando tiempos difíciles”, reconoció Cupchoy, pidiendo que todos sean pacientes y comprensivos. “Las cuestiones presupuestarias no son exclusivas a nuestro distrito, es un problema hereditario”.

Sin embargo, su petición cayó en saco rato ya que varios dijeron que no estarán contentos hasta que los miembros de la junta renuncien o sean revocados, que Rojas sea despedido y que se lance una investigación federal contra la corrupción.

“Esta comunidad está indignada”, dijo Kimberly Cobos, presentándole el aviso de revoco a Cupchoy. “Basta ya. Es suficiente”, dijo, expresando su interés en correr por el asiento de Cupchoy.

“Juntos vamos a retomar nuestro distrito”.

Union Workers Target Cupchoy, Cardenas for Recall

March 9, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

For years, the Montebello Unified School District was where you wanted to be if you worked in the K-12 education.

Employee morale had remained fairly high during the budget cuts of the Great Recession and the school district was relatively scandal free, a sharp contrast to some of the cities where MUSD schools are located.

But a lot has changed in recent months and some MUSD employees are now calling for heads to roll, starting with the recall of Board President Lani Cupchoy and Board Member Benjamin Cardenas.

The two board members were given formal notice of the intent to recall March 2 yet another heated school board meeting, where once again district employees, parents and students demanded the recent decision to lay off nearly 500 employees to deal with a staggering $30 million budget shortfall be rescinded.

It’s the first time a recall has been launched against a board member, or in this case, two members.

“This is Montebello, once the momentum gets going you guys are not going to be able to slow us down,” former school board member Frank Morales told the board. “Good luck in November, new sheriffs are coming in.”

Earlier in the day, a large group of Montebello High School students walked out of class in a show of support for the workers losing their jobs, in the process setting off a firestorm of media coverage.

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Montebello Unified employees protested alongside students opposing the board’s decision to layoff employees due to a budget cuts. (EGP Photo by Nancy Martinez)

They walked to district headquarters where walkout organizer Jorge Salazar told the board they would regret their decision to layoff workers.

The district has always done a good job of staying out of the headlines. But now, facing a multi-million dollar budget deficit, massive district wide layoffs, accusations of wrong doing by the district’s chief business officer and a recall, MUSD is in crisis mode.

“The media is not here to showcase the positive things going on in the district,” warned Lorraine Richards, president of the teachers’ union, MTA. “It’s negative and will affect our enrollment.”

Ratcheting up the pressure, the California School Employees Association (CSEA) last week made good on its promise to take the turmoil to the public.

At a meeting of the Pico Rivera City Council — where Cardenas is the assistant city manager — maintenance worker John Nieto told the council district employees don’t trust and the council should investigate how he landed the ‘high paying job” in their city.

He suggested Cardenas’ hiring was done as a ‘political favor” to someone.

“It’s a clear message to the council, he works there and we’re having problems with him in our district,” said Lloyd Garrison, president of CSEA Chapter 500.

Fueling the flames is the school board’s decision last November to fire then Superintendent Susana Contreras-Smith and Chief Business Officer Cleve Pell, a longtime superintendent. The decision angered CSEA members, but was supported by the teachers’ union that had already issued its own vote of no confidence in Contreras-Smith.

“Your greed has hurt too many students,” Pell told Cardenas during last week’s meeting. Pell now says he intends to run for the board if the recall goes through.

The board chose Ruben Rojas to replace Pell, despite his having received a vote of no confidence from union workers.

Rojas has since been accused of falsifying his resume, hiring personal acquaintances, not adhering to labor agreements and is now being blamed for the district’s current financial woes.

“Our staff is being treated unfairly all because of Rojas’ misuse of money,” claims Montebello High School student Santiago Lopez, saying it’s Rojas who should be fired.

Rojas slipped out of the meeting during an unscheduled recess called by Cupchoy, in the process avoiding the barrage of accusations and calls for his firing.

“I think [Rojas] has something on the board,” speculated a teacher who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, telling EGP “It has to be something big, like Ron Calderon big,” referring to the corruption conviction of the former Montebello senator.

Montebello students walkout protest MPD Courtesy

Hundreds of MUSD students and employees protested layoffs March 2 outside district headquarters. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

State lawmakers announced last week they are requesting an independent state audit of MUSD finances in light of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s warning that the district is in danger of not meeting its financial obligations and faces a more than $30 million budget deficit over the next two years.

To the surprise of many, Chacon, the only board member to vote against the cuts, announced he would not seek reelection this fall for the position he has held for 24 years.

He questioned whether Montebello Unified’s financial situation is as dire as Rojas has painted it to be, saying he would continue to advocate on behalf of the district and its students.

“This board is facing difficult times,” acknowledged Cupchoy, asking that everyone be patient and understanding. “The budget issues are not unique to our district, it is an inherited problem.”

Her plea fell on deaf ears, with many people saying they won’t be happy until the board members resign or are recalled, Rojas is fired and a federal corruption investigation is launched.

“This community is outraged,” said Kimberly Cobos, presenting Cupchoy with the recall notice targeting her seat. “Enough is enough,” she said, expressing an interest in running for Cupchoy’s seat.

“Together we are going to take back out district.”

MUSD to Undergo Forensic Audit

December 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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.”

 New MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy announces the district will undergo a forensic audit, following her appointment during the Dec. 8 meeting.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

New MUSD Board President Lani Cupchoy announces the district will undergo a forensic audit, following her appointment during the Dec. 8 meeting. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

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.”

 

MUSD Será Objeto de Auditoría Forense

December 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Tras varias alegaciones de fraude y de mal uso de fondos del distrito de parte de los empleados del Distrito Unificado Escolar de Montebello (MUSD), Ben Cardenas miembro de la junta, ha pedido que se establezca una auditoría forense para examinar las finanzas del MUSD.

“Habían suficiente razónes para examinar el asunto más a fondo”, le dijo a EGP, explicando que espera que una auditoría elimine cualquier duda sobre las prácticas financieras del distrito escolar.

“La naturaleza de las acusaciones es importante”, dijo él.

La proposición inicial de Cárdenas para una auditoría se produjo la semana pasada, cuando todavía era presidente de la junta del MUSD. Mientras que la junta escolar no actuará oficialmente hasta la reunión del jueves 15 de diciembre, de acuerdo con la nueva presidenta de la junta, Lani Cupchoy, el personal del distrito ya está buscando a empresas a quien contratar para la auditoría.

Los analisis examinarán los procedimientos contables del MUSD, sus polizas, prioridades, los protocolos de gastos y las líneas de autorización. Finalmente tratarán de descubrir y exponer cualquier robo de dinero en efectivo o de inventario, pagos fraudulentos, corrupción, conflictos de interéses, soborno, extorsión y declaraciones equivocadas.

Cupchoy le dijo a EGP que la auditoría ayudará a tranquilizar al público asegurando que el distrito escolar está siendo administrado apropiadamente. La confirmación llegaría a buen tiempo ya que los votantes aprobaron un bono escolar de $300 millones en junio.

“Estamos abriendo nuestras puertas”, ella dijo a EGP. “Se lo debemos al público”.

Cárdenas también quiere que el distrito establezca una línea de sugerencias donde los empleados y otros puedan reportar de forma anónima el fraude sin temor a las repercusiones.

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Presidenta del Consejo del MUSD, Lani Cupchoy anuncia que el distrito será auditado, después de su nombramiento el 8 de diciembre. (Foto de EGP Por Nancy Martínez)

“Al parecer muchos [empleados] tenían miedo de hablar”, Cardenas le dijo a EGP.

Las noticias de dicha auditoría llegán tras el despido controversial de la Superintendente Susana Contreras-Smith y del Principal Oficial de Finanzas y Operaciones, Cleve Pell, un administrador del MUSD por años quien sirvió en varios cargos superiores, como el de co-superintendente.

El despido motivó la creación de musdcorruption.com, un sitio web que critica al distrito y afirma que los dos ex administradores fueron despedidos porque intentaron tomar una posición contra la corrupción. El sitio, cuyo creador es desconocido, también alega que el abogado del MUSD fue reemplazado para ocultar el encubrimiento.

A principios de este año, el Grupo 505 parte de la Asociación de Empleados Escolares de California de Montebello (CSEA) aprobó un “voto de desconfianza” dirigido hacia el jefe de negocios del MUSD, Rubén Rojas. Él recibió un breve permiso administrativo de ausencia con sueldo a principios de este año, lo que sólo se describió como una cuestión de personal.

El voto del CSEA en contra acusa a Rojas de contratar a personas conocidas para su personal, de reducir la moral de todo el distrito y de no adherirse a los acuerdos laborales del proyecto entre otros asuntos.

Residentes y empleados también han expresado su desaprobación de algunas ofertas de contrato aprobadas por Rojas.

Sin embargo, el miércoles MUSD anunció que ha recibido una calificación AAA de la agencia Fitch Ratings por el bono escolar aprobado por los votantes de $100 millones que será emitido por el distrito.

Es la “calificación crediticia más alta que cualquier emisión de bonos puede recibir, incluyendo las del Gobierno Federal de los Estados Unidos y les ahorrará a los contribuyentes locales millones de dólares”, declaró el anuncio.

Rojas dijo que la calificación “es un testimonio de la fuerte gestión fiscal” del distrito. “Seguiremos tomando decisiones fiscales inteligentes que ayudarán a que nuestras escuelas prosperen”, dijo Rojas.

Cárdenas no reveló los detalles de las acusaciones, alegando que no quiere perjudicar el proceso de la auditoría ni entrar en el ámbito de la especulación. Independientemente del resultado, dijo que cree que la auditoría ayudará a la junta y al público a lograr una mejor comprensión del presupuesto del distrito, proporcionando una comprensión más profunda de lo que se necesita hacer para asegurar que el distrito opere eficientemente.

“Esta es la mejor inversión que podemos hacer,” aseguró.

Después de escuchar los rumores de las supuestas infracciones, Linda Nicklas, cofundadora del grupo de vigilancia de Montebello MATCH90640, le dijo a EGP que espera con interés la auditoría.

“Necesitamos una auditoría que sea independiente, sin ningún vínculo con el consejo”, dijo.

Cupchoy le dijo a EGP que ella no cree que la auditoría es difamatoria para el distrito.

“Lo veo como una red de seguridad”, agregó.

Cupchoy también dijo que lo primordial para el distrito es asegurarse de que todo el dinero se este usado para servir a sus 29,000 estudiantes. Una auditoría fiscal proporcionará orientación y asegurará que haya equidad en todo el distrito, dijo ella.

“La auditoría no se trata de las finanzas”, le dijo a EGP. “Es una inversión en nuestro distrito”.

Montebello Unified Welcomes New Board, New Year

December 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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.”

Edgar Cisneros and Joanna Flores, who were both elected to serve the Montebello Unified School Board right, took the oath of office during a special meeting on Dec. 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

Edgar Cisneros and Joanna Flores, who were both elected to serve the Montebello Unified School Board right, took the oath of office during a special meeting on Dec. 10. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez )

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.”

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