The mayor of East Palo Alto blasted Ravenswood City School District leadership in two separate letters Friday and Saturday criticizing what he described as the district's "sneak ambush" solicitation of financial support from the City Council and alleging that district leaders have created a "culture of corruption, intimidation and coverup."
Ruben Abrica said that he learned through media inquiries about a letter that board President Ana Pulido and Vice President Sharifa Wilson addressed to him – rather than receiving the letter directly. The letter asks the City Council to invest in the Child Development Center (CDC), Ravenswood's preschool program, which will likely be taken over by the San Mateo County Office of Education as the district makes significant budget cuts to remain fiscally solvent.
The letter was dated Thursday. The district's communications consultant, Rolando Bonilla of firm Voler Strategic Advisors, said it was mailed to Abrica and the City Council late Thursday. The letter was distributed via email to the media and posted on the district's social media accounts on Friday.
Abrica, speaking as an East Palo Alto resident rather than its mayor, criticized the district for failing to provide transparency as it works to address an ongoing budget shortfall. The board last week approved more than $5 million in cuts in order to balance its budget for the next school year, including cutting 28 out of 31 positions at the Child Development Center.
"Your self-inflicted financial crisis … (does) not justify storming and ambushing the City Council to cover up for your mistakes," he wrote in a letter to Pulido, Wilson and Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff on Friday.
He also faulted Hernandez-Goff in particular for failing to manage the budget, writing in the Saturday letter that her mismanagement "is what triggered the cuts so suddenly instead of collaborative planning of reductions starting three years ago.
"This is being called a 'reform' and a 'new culture,' but it's really a culture of corruption, intimidation and coverup," Abrica wrote. He stated that when Hernandez-Goff was hired in 2013, the district budget's ending balance was $8 million. Without budget cuts this coming year, the county projected the 2018-19 ending balance would be negative $3.3 million, he wrote.
The second Abrica letter, addressed to Bonilla and Pulido, included a set of questions and demanded "public clarification" of issues of concern that are circulating in the community.
Wilson told the Weekly Saturday that it "saddens" her to see Abrica taking an "adversarial" rather than collaborative stance at a difficult time for the district. She disagreed that the letter to Abrica and the council was an "ambush," saying that a parent had suggested the board seek help from the city at the district's Feb. 8 meeting.
"To imply that it was an ambush means it's something that was done sneakily, someplace in the dark," Wilson said. "It came from the community."
But other board members only learned about the district's Thursday letter after it was sent: Marielena Gaona-Mendoza and Marcelino Lopez were provided copies of the letter at a retreat Saturday morning, Bonilla said. (Trustee Charlie Mae Knight was absent.)
Wilson said she and Pulido were within their authority as vice president and president to write the letter to the city without notifying or seeking approval from the full board. It is their "responsibility," she said, to seek creative solutions to the budget crisis.
In a statement on Saturday evening, Bonilla suggested that Abrica, as a "life-long politician," is resistant to the "necessary reforms that will pull our district from the bottom of the county to the top."
"Irresponsibly ranting is not leadership; it is the sign of someone whose time has passed," Bonilla said.
Abrica also complained that documents for Saturday's retreat, the bulk of which was devoted to discussing the budget, were not posted with the meeting agenda online and thus not available for the public to review beforehand. Printed documents were made available at the board meeting. Chief Budget Official Steven Eichman told the Weekly that the documents were not available before the retreat — even to the board members — because he was still completing them on Saturday morning.
The equivalent of 83 full-time staff positions are being eliminated as part of the budget cuts. In Abrica's Saturday letter, he asked for more information about the employment of Hernandez-Goff's son, John Denos.
Denos was hired by the district in 2014 as a California English Language Development Test tester but has also helped with human-resources software implementation and database analysis, according to information provided by the district in response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Palo Alto Weekly in 2017. He is currently employed as a data quality support technician in the district office with a salary of $86,696, according to a list of district office personnel provided at Saturday's retreat. His position was not among those the board cut on Feb. 8.
In response to the public records request, the district said last year that Hernandez-Goff "has had no supervisory, managerial, or evaluative role in any aspect" of Denos' employment.
Abrica also raised numerous questions about the former Child Development Center director, who is Wilson's domestic partner. He asked for information about how the person was hired, whether Wilson voted to hire her, how much she earned and why she later quit.
Eichman presented on Saturday detailed budget documents, including a list of all positions at each school and district department, their corresponding costs and funding sources; new district positions that have been added and not filled in the last two years; and a breakdown of the district's general fund expenditures, among other information.
Some of the documents contained errors that teachers caught during Saturday's meeting, including teachers listed at campuses who teach at another site or are no longer in the position and an inaccurate number of staff absences at the Child Development Center. Hernandez-Goff said the errors were due to staff "scrambling to get all of this information together."
Eichman said he aims to provide corrected information to the board at its next meeting this Thursday, Feb 22. The board is expected to approve layoff notices for staff at that meeting.
Of the district's $47.6 million budget, about $16 million is spent on salaries for teachers and about $6.1 million on classified and certificated management positions, according to Eichman.
The board also discussed on Saturday the results of a poll conducted to gauge voters' support for placing a parcel tax and/or bond measure on the June 5, 2018 ballot. The district plans to seek renewal for a $196 parcel tax that is set to expire in June. The tax provides $1.1 million to pay for teaching positions.
The survey, which was conducted via phone and online in late January and early February, indicates that there is strong support for both a parcel tax and bond measure, though those surveyed were less supportive of an increased parcel tax.
Abrica told the board that public opinion may have shifted in response to the budget crisis and urged the district to conduct the survey again.
"I've always supported these things, but under these circumstances — you're losing the trust of the people," he told the board members.