Enveloped By Scandal, Former CJUSD Trustee Kent Taylor Fordoes Himself

By Mark Gutglueck
Kent Taylor, whose urbane show of dedication to the betterment of educational opportunities within the blue collar and working class communities of Colton, Bloomington and Fontana and the middle class community of Grand Terrace over the course of more than two decades anchored his political career and furthered his professional advancement as an educator, died by his own hand over the weekend, reportedly having been prompted to suicide as the consequence of a scandal, the full ramifications of which are yet unclear, that descended upon him a bare two months ago.
Kent Lamar Taylor, a product of the mean streets of Inglewood and those of the nearby communities of Hawthorne and Lennox, acknowledged being a less than stellar student within the Inglewood Unified School District when he was attending grade school at Warren Lane Elementary School in the early and mid-1970s, Crozier Middle School from 1976 until 1978 and Inglewood High School, from which he graduated in 1982.
Ultimately at some point during his last two years at Inglewood High, he experienced an epiphany which he said transformed him into a serious academician committed to education as the key not only to the improvement of his life but that of others. He qualified for acceptance at the University of California at Riverside, where he earned a
Bachelor of Science Degree in business. He followed that up by obtaining his teaching credential from the University of La Verne. His first teaching assignment was as an instructional aide with the San Bernardino City Unified School District in 1986. Thereafter, he taught with the San Bernardino City Unified School District and then later in Yucaipa. He was employed as a teacher with the San Jacinto School District and at a private school in Colton. He eventually obtained a Master of Education degree from Cal State San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, in 1999, Taylor successfully vied for a position on the Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees in that district’s Area 2, capturing 1,763 votes or 55 percent to outdistance Wendy Patrick and her 1,440 votes or 44.9 percent. In 2003, he was reelected by acclamation when no one vied against him.
Beginning in 2004, Taylor served as the director of curriculum and instruction in the Rialto Unified School District.
In the middle of the first decade of the Third Millennium the Colton Joint Unified School District changed its election cycle from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, thereby extending its members’ terms by one year. The district also redrew its jurisdictional map, which placed Taylor in Area Three. Of note was that at that point, Taylor had changed his middle name from Lamar to Hernandez. In the 1988 contest for the Area Three position on the Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees, Kent Hernandez Taylor turned back a challenge by Todd Housely, prevailing with 12,670 votes or 54.61 percent over Housely’s 10,530 votes or 45.39 percent.
Taylor was something of an iconoclast as a school board member. Several of his colleagues on the Colton Joint Unified board, while well meaning, honest and dedicated, were neither as well-educated, as sophisticated nor experienced in the professional realm of education as was Taylor. From the outset of his time on the board, the district was yet dealing with a series of missteps in the direction provided to the district’s management and administration by the board in the years just prior to Taylor’s election, issues that included purchasing school sites that turned out to be unsuitable for a host of reasons, including seismic vulnerability, which entailed the district being saddled with property that it needed to then divest itself of but which could only be sold at a loss. Taylor made a show of working as a team member among board members who boasted no more than high school educations and routinely communicated in sentences that involved the use of double negatives. Taylor came across as someone who knew what he was doing and had a plan, and that he felt no need to defend his ideas or himself to anyone. He was satisfied to just offer his ideas, and if his colleagues bought them, fine, and if not, he just went on. In the meanwhile, the other members of the board entrusted him to study and examine and then clarify to them many of the convoluted financial issues facing the district, such that the board in making its decisions on such matters over time became more or less reliant on Taylor’s direction.
As a resident of Grand Terrace, which along with Reche Canyon was the most upscale of all of the communities in the Colton Joint Unified School District, Taylor was the foremost representative of that city with regard to education issues. A roiling issue during Taylor’s first three terms on the board was where the district’s fourth high school was to be built. With the parents of many students living in Grand Terrace concerned about what they felt was an excessive commute for their children to attend school in Colton and a commensurate desire to see a high school campus established in Grand Terrace, Taylor played a role in thwarting an incipient movement to have Grand Terrace secede from the Colton district altogether by achieving district consent to construct a high school in Grand Terrace. That came at the cost of Taylor having to go along with his board colleagues in naming the high school after Ray Abril, a longtime member of the Colton Joint Unified School District Board who was well thought of in Colton but whose votes over the years were considered by many to be slights to the Grand Terrace community. In 2009, Taylor, at the behest of an overwhelming number of incensed Grand Terrace residents, managed to make an absolute reversal of the position he had taken in supporting naming the high school after Abril as a prerequisite to get it built in Grand Terrace, and then through a torturous series of serial meetings with several of his six board colleagues managed to summon up one, then two and finally three votes other than his own using backroom political horsetrading to get them to support renaming the school Grand Terrace High School at the Ray Abril Jr. Educational Complex, which in common usage thereafter became simply Grand Terrace High School.
In July 2011, when he was offered the position of superintendent of the small Southern Kern Unified School District, which was at that time in financial distress, Taylor took it, moving with his wife and three children to the Antelope Valley town of Rosamond. When Taylor arrived, Southern Kern Unified was on a trajectory by which it would be unable to meet its financial obligations for the ongoing and the next fiscal year. Taylor, by looking at the district’s ledgers and expenditures, its contracts and commitments, its assets and needs, sized up in very short order where the district was hemorrhaging red ink and which financial issues could be quickly resolved. He determined which orders could be canceled, which contracts could be renegotiated at more manageable rates, and he proceeded at once, showing decisiveness and resolve without hesitation, in virtually every case taking action without first getting clearance from the school board. By the end of Taylor’s very brief tenure at Southern Kern Unified, the district was removed from the list of the State of California’s 13 arrearage districts which were functioning at such a structural deficit that they needed constant infusions of revenue from Sacramento to remain in operation.
Indeed, Governor Jerry Brown and then-California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson were so impressed by Taylor’s performance that they virtually drafted him in October 2012 to return to his old stomping grounds, Inglewood, to rescue the Inglewood Unified School District, which was teetering over a seemingly bottomless financial abyss that the previous administration had proven entirely incapable of coming to terms with. The board of education’s backing of the previous superintendent’s plan to drastically slash teacher salaries and payroll had created a situation in which teachers were ready to simply walk away from their positions en masse, essentially shutting the district down entirely. At that point the state effectuated a takeover of the district. In an effort to keep the district afloat, then-California Sentator Roderick Wright authored legislation providing the district with $55 million in loans to be paid back over 20 years. That bill was quickly passed and signed into law by Governor Brown. Taylor was entrusted with utilizing the funding to restructure district operations in accordance with oversight not by the district’s board of trustees but under the supervision of Torlakson’s office in Sacramento. The former school board and other local elected officials, union representatives, faculty, and district staff were recruited to act in an advisory role with Taylor responsible for overseeing day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year operations.
It was stated that it was anticipated that in no case would Taylor be in Inglewood for less than two years and that it was far more likely that the need for his guidance would not elapse for six years, at which point the goal was for the district to be able to function within the confines of a budget based upon the revenues normally provided to the district through property tax and standard state education funding. Additionally, it was expected that the academic testing of students at the nine schools in the district would improve to levels approaching 800 or better, a level comparable with the state average. At that point, control of the district was to return to the sidelined elected board members, which would have the option of keeping Taylor in place.
The decisive, indeed bold, character of Taylor’s leadership, however, played him wrong. Just two months after he took on the assignment in Inglewood, on his own authority he entered the district into a tentative agreement he made with the local teachers union. Torlakson’s office reacted with dismay that he had done so without approval from the state. As a consequence, Taylor abruptly resigned as Inglewood Unified’s superintendent in December 2012. He was given a $100,000 severance upon leaving.
For at least some, Taylor’s willingness to close a deal with the district’s teachers he thought the Inglewood district could live with financially in a way that was out of step with the state’s expectation of a closely-monitored and carefully-approved process was a flashing yellow light of caution.
However, in the nearby Lennox School District, which was wrestling with a few financial issues of its own and where there were political disagreements within the community and on the school board about the direction the district should take, Taylor’s actions was seen by some as desirable decisiveness.
The community of Lennox is an unincorporated Los Angeles County district just east of Los Angeles International Airport. The school district there has a preschool which runs mostly on state and federal funding, five elementary schools and a junior high serving roughly 5,000 students.
The district is beset with a myriad of challenges. The unincorporated Los Angeles County community of Lennox is proximate to and sits directly underneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport. It is bordered to the west by Interstate 405, i.e., the San Diego Freeway, and to the south by Interstate 105, the Glenn Anderson Freeway. As such, the Lennox District is considered an undesirable living environment and is populated in large measure by impoverished individuals and families with few options, a significant number of whom are immigrants with limited or no English language skills. There has been substantial and steady attrition in Lennox’s population over the last two decades and an accompanying drop-off in the number of students enrolled in the district, which has reduced the educational funding provided to the district by the state.
In March 2013, just four months after departing from his short-lived position as Inglewood Unified superintendent, Taylor was hired as deputy superintendent in the Lennox School District.
By that summer, Taylor found himself thoroughly enmeshed in the school district’s politics. In August, board members Mercedes Ibarra and Marisol Cruz had directed Taylor to make personnel changes at the district which bypassed Superintendent Barbara Flores and at least some of the other board members. In September, Flores protested this action.
In the November 2013 election, incumbent Lennox School District board members Cruz, Sonia Saldana and Juan Navarro were up for reelection. While Navarro managed to remain in office, both Cruz and Saldana were defeated by Shannon Allen and Sergio Hernandez Jr. After the election, yet a month remained before Cruz and Saldana were scheduled to depart from the school board dais. At that point both lame ducks were entirely disenchanted with the performance of Flores as superintendent. Just weeks before their departure as board members, Cruz and Saldana joined with Ibarra to jettison Flores and replace her with Taylor.
Virtually from the outset of his tenure as superintendent with the Lennox School District, Taylor and board member Angela Fajardo, who had voted along with Navarro in opposing Taylor’s hiring, were at odds. They skirmished off and on, with Taylor at one point accusing Fajardo of having it in for him because he was African-American.
In 2014, Taylor, living once again in Grand Terrace, ran for a two-year term on the Colton Joint Unified School District’s board of trustees that was up for election because of a vacancy on that panel that had emerged. He was victorious. Two years later, in 2016, he ran for reelection and was successful in capturing a four-year term.
In his professional function at the Lennox School District, Taylor often used his authority as superintendent to secure services on the spot without getting prior board approval. Most of those fell, at least initially, below his $15,000 spending authority. Normally, those contracts came up for review subsequent to the service arrangements being made. In virtually every case the board ratified Taylor’s decision, although occasionally one member of the board or other, quite often Fajardo, posed exacting questions about the expenditures.
Based in part on a connection Taylor had made with the Diocese of San Bernardino early in his teaching career, Taylor had developed a fondness for forging educational relationships with Catholic-affiliated learning institutions.
Such was the case in 2016, when Taylor devised a unique pilot program to bring an infusion of revenue into the Lennox School District. Having learned that the State of California would subsidize online education efforts, Taylor proposed the district could offer online classes to students both within and without the district’s boundaries and pick up a per-student stipend to cover not only the district’s cost in offering the classes but the cost of supplying every student who participated with a lap top computer. Dubbing the program the Lennox Virtual Academy, Taylor arranged to have St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield, St. Joseph School in Hawthorne, St. John Chrysostom Catholic School in Inglewood and Resurrection Academy in Fontana participate in the effort, along with students from the Lennox District as well as some home-schooled students. Participation in the program was offered to and involved students who filled out the necessary paperwork and waivers with the Lennox School District.
Under the terms of the program, students from outside the Lennox district who were participating had to enroll not just at the school they were attending, but within the Virtual Academy within the Lennox District. This was done despite the students being in the case of Fontana 65 miles from Lennox and in the case of those in Bakersfield
some 120 miles away. Taylor assured everyone that he had researched everything thoroughly with the State of California and that the only requirement that had to be met was that the enrolled students needed to log on to a program known as the Acellus Academy, which embodied the Virtual Academy’s coursework, for at least 55 minutes every school day. The State of California paid for the program, with the lion’s share of the money coming into the Lennox School District, but money going as well to the Dioceses of San Bernardino, Los Angles and Fresno.
At its height, the Virtual Academy was bringing in more that $3 million in revenue to the Lennox School District.
In 2017, the Diocese of Fresno initiated some independent research into the program and abruptly ended its relationship with the Virtual Academy. Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles County Office of Education began examining the arrangement.
Earlier this year, state education officials took a close look at the virtual academy program. While their conclusion was that the Acellus Academy coursework passed muster in terms of state curriculum requirements, the district’s blurring of the distinction between public schools and private religious schools, not to mention the dual registration of students at two accredited schools simultaneously, was a highly questionable if not outright illegal use of public education money. Earlier this year, the Lennox School district committed to closing the Virtual Academy as of this year.
In retrospect, a recurrent relationship between the district and Ben Leavitt that flourished under Taylor has come into question. One of those related to the Virtual Academy.
Taylor had arranged for an outfit known as School Management Solutions to provide all of the administrative processing for the Lennox Virtual Academy, under a contract which paid the firm roughly ten percent of the roughly $10,200 per student per academic year that the district took in for each student enrolled in the Virtual Academy. In this way School Management Solutions has netted approaching $800,000 from the program.
Leavett is the principal in another company that had a very lucrative arrangement with the district, that entity being the consulting firm of Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt. Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt has handled a number of district affairs, most notably the district’s impoverished student nutrition program.
Taylor presented contracts relating to the arrangements with both Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt and School Management Solutions to the school board, which signed off on them. The deal with Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt for the nutrition management program involved rather exorbitant remuneration levels for services entailing hourly wages to Leavett of $165, a supervisor who received $120 an hour and a clerical staff person remunerated at $80 an hour. Administrative costs on the nutrition program over a three year period ran to more than $700,000.
A contract the district entered into in the Spring of 2013, while Taylor had not yet acceded to the position of superintendent, was that with A-Team Security, which had been hired to watch over the district’s campuses plagued by recurrent waves of vandalism. Despite the consideration that Barbara Flores was the district’s superintendent at that time, Taylor had taken the lead on and made the arrangements for the A-Team Security contract.
Initially, that no-bid contract had run the district just over $640,000 per year for video surveillance, patrol and general security at the district’s six campuses. The next year, 2014-15, A-Team Security went from simply watching the schoolyards and buildings during hours when teachers and students were not there and class was not in session to a more comprehensive 24-hour setup. The cost jumped to a cool million annually, calculated upon paying security guards $19 to $20 per hour and their supervisor and a full-time head of security $23 per hour and $27 per hour. Over the three years thereafter, the district was paying $1.2 million per year to A-Team.
During his time as superintendent, Taylor kept quiet that the district had spent over $5.2 million on campus security. When the Los Angeles County Office of Education came across that number last year, it sent a memo to the district relating to what one of the office’s auditor considered to be an “alarming” outlay. It is not clear whether the school board ever saw that memo or if it was intercepted and quashed by Taylor.
Taylor’s rocky relationship with Fajardo, who has been a board member with Lennox School District since 2007, never went away. That circumstance was exacerbated when Marisol Cruz, who had been voted off the board in 2013 and who is often at odds with Fajardo, was returned to the board when she ran again in 2015. Fajardo’s questioning of the items for action that Taylor had placed before the board over the years, her distrust of the positive relationship that Taylor had with Cruz and her occasional referrals to enforcement or auditing agencies brought scrutiny to the district that manifested, earlier this year, in a set of questions that Taylor was at last unable to provide satisfactory answers to.
Suggestions surfaced of a kickback arrangement involving Cossolias, Wilson, Dominguez and Leavitt or School Management Solutions or both. A parsing of the district’s books by state auditors found that since 2013 the money salted away in the district’s reserve accounts had dwindled from $12.5 million to $1.6 million as of June 30, 2018. That is technically below the state’s minimum three percent reserve cushion.
On April 9, after state and Los Angeles County Office of Education officials had exchanges with district officials, Taylor resigned as superintendent. On the same day, information was likewise provided to Colton Joint Unified School District officials. A closed session of that district’s board ensued, the confidential minutes of which have been sealed into perpetuity, meaning no disclosure of that discussion will ever be made public. Immediately after that session, Taylor resigned as a school board member.
The Lennox School District Board of Trustees then appointed Nick Salerno to serve as interim superintendent. Already alerted to the issues that had prompted Taylor’s resignation, board members in the last two months have been buffeted by further revelations relating to fiscal mismanagement that have proven to be a drain on the district’s $69 million annual operating budget.
Exactly one month later, on May 9, after the Los Angeles County Office of Education had gone over the Lennox School District’s books very closely and raised pointed questions about district finances, the district’s chief business officer, Kevin Franklin, and the district’s human resources manager, Hiacynth Martinez, tendered their resignations.
On Sunday, June 9, with his wife Janet and one of their three children having gone several days before to Yosemite on a dual recreational vehicle camping trip/family reunion, Taylor waited until the early afternoon when he knew that both of his other older children were engaged and would not be at their Grand Terrace home. At that point, reportedly after leaving a terse note to prevent the sheriff’s department from having to chase down false and dead end leads against anyone else, Kent Taylor, 54, using a handgun shot himself once in the head.
Nick Salerno, the acting superintendent of the Lennox School District said, “We are shocked and saddened to hear about the sudden death of our former superintendent, Mr. Kent Taylor. On behalf of the board of education and myself, we send our heartfelt condolences to Mr. Taylor’s family and closest friends, and to all whose lives he touched.”
“We were deeply saddened this week to hear about the death of our longtime board member, Kent Taylor,” Katie Orloff, the spokeswoman for the Colton Joint Unified School District said. “We thank him for his service and dedication to the students, families and employees of our district. We send our condolences to his family for their tremendous loss. Our hearts go out to them in all ways.”
Mark Jolstead, a community activist in Grand Terrace who was close to Taylor, told the Sentinel that Taylor embodied “charisma. He was a good guy. He had what very few people have, which is a way to just win you over. He had a natural ability to light up a room. There aren’t many people who have that. I have to work hard to just have a little of what came to him naturally. He was electrifying. He had this great personality where what was going on right now was the best day of his life, everyday. He was always positive. What I remember most vividly about him is he was the kind of person who when you came to him with something you needed, he acted. He never said, ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ What he said was, ‘I’ll get this done.’ When he ran for office, we all stood behind him. His death is a very sad thing and it is a loss to the community.”
“Kent Taylor was the one person who kept the dream of Grand Terrace High School alive,” said former Grand Terrace Mayor Herman Hilkey. “For nearly ten years he was the only one on the school board who was committed to having that high school, which also served the south end of Colton, locate in our city. He kept that idea alive until there were enough others on the board to see the wisdom of that. He should be remembered for that. Kent will be remembered for that.”

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