Once Rising Democratic Star Gilbert Pulls Plug On Her Foundering Political Career

(August 12) Buffeted by scandal and controversy, Rialto School Board President Joanne Gilbert is not seeking reelection this year, seemingly drawing to a close what some had seen as a budding political career.
Last year, Gilbert demonstrated pluck and political ambition when she ran in the special election to replace Gloria Negrete-McLeod as state senator in the Democratic-leaning 32nd District. Torres vacated that position with two years remaining on her term when she was elected to Congress in the November 2012 election.
At that point,  Gilbert, who touts solid Democratic credentials,  was riding high enough to be confident about testing the political waters. Six months after the special March 2013 election, however, the first in a series of blows rocked the Rialto Unified School District.
In August 2013, word of a decade-long string of embezzlements perpetrated by Judith Oakes, the accountant with the school district who oversaw the lunch program surfaced with Oakes’ arrest. An audit showed that Oakes had made off with at least $1.8 million of the district’s money between 2005 and 2013 and may have embezzled a total of as much as $3.1 million going back to 1999,
Gillbert had been on the school board since 2000.
The Oakes revelation led to further inquiries and discoveries of questionable practices within the district.  On September 14, 2013 the district moved to suspend Dr. Harold Cebrun, the district superintendent, as well as Cebrun’s chief of staff, James Wallace, who also served as the district’s assistant superintendent of student services, shortly after Oakes was arrested.
Cebrun repeatedly denied any knowledge of Oakes’ illicit activities. A close examination of Oakes’ activities by investigator Jeff Stewart churned up evidence that the district administration had been somewhat lackadaisical in monitoring Oakes, though her activity predated by some seven years Cebrun’s hiring by the district. The district kept elements of the investigation carried out by Stewart very close to the vest and did not publicly share details unearthed by the Rialto Police Department as well. It was unclear whether the district had sufficient grounds upon which to terminate the superintendent. The district kept him in limbo for more than six months, continuing to pay him but taking no official action to severe him. One member of the board, Joseph Ayala, advocated for returning Cebrun to the helm of the district. He was outvoted by his colleagues. In March, Cebrun voluntarily left his employ with the district.
Wallace remains on the district payroll. He earned  $170,501 in the 2013-14 school year, for most of which he remained at home. He will again make $170,501 in 2014-15, again for performing no work, unless the district reinstates him, which appears unlikely.
There were further indications given that the district was being poorly run earlier this year.  In March, a state audit of the district showed  it had spent over $28,000 on employee perks, incentives and awards in a dubious effort to boost staff and faculty morale.
That spending included credit card purchases that included  $7,201 in payments made to Nike by the superintendent’s office over a two-year period, unspecified payments made to Paypal, a Las Vegas casino, a florist, payments to cover meals at restaurants on weekends, $7,429 for picture frames apparently to serve as a backdrop for photos of employees to be selectively honored; $7,614 spent on an employee appreciation dinner at ESPN Zone; and over $14,000 spent for engraved trophies intended as awards to deserving employees. According to the auditors, the actual value of the trophies was under $2,000. The district’s previous accounting firm,  Vavrinek, Trine, Day, had not made any notation with regard to the expenditures deemed questionable by the state auditors and was subsequently terminated as the district’s financial overseer.
The coup de grace came for Gilbert in May when it was revealed that in April, eighth graders in the district had been given a writing assignment in which they were instructed to debate whether the Jewish Holocaust arising out of World War II and its occupation of the countries Germany invaded was “merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.”
The district initially defended the assignment as an argumentative writing research project intended to teach students to evaluate  evidence marshaled by supporters or  opponents of a position. After the  Los Angeles-based Anti-Defamation League criticized the education assignment as having “no academic value” and giving “legitimacy to the hateful and anti-Semitic promoters of Holocaust denial,” the district relented. Gilbert and other district officials found themselves being subjected to charges of anti-Semitism.
Gilbert did not file for reelection by the 5 p.m. deadline on August 8, stating only that she was “tired and worn out” by the controversy that has beset the district over the last year.

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