By Mark Gutglueck
It appears that Superintendent Randal Bassett is on the outs with the Fontana Unified School District and its board after nearly five-and-a-half years in the district’s top administrative spot.
Officially, the district is maintaining that Bassett is yet in place. But Bassett, who normally occupied a prominent spot on the board dais during public meetings and served as the host and face of the district under normal circumstances, was absent from a marathon board meeting that began on Wednesday night but stretched into the wee hours of Thursday morning as the board deliberated in an extended closed session with regard to the termination of an undisclosed district employee. Upon the board adjourning back into open session after the executive session that was conducted outside the sight or hearing of the public, Bassett had been replaced by the district’s superintendent of business services, Ryan DiGiulio. As of Thursday and extending until Friday, June 8, Bassett was not functioning from his office at district headquarters.
No fewer than three district staff members, one of whom functions at the highest level, insisted to the Sentinel that Bassett is no longer running the district. Bassett was ironically felled, the Sentinel was told, by his own efforts over a period of half of a decade in which he slavishly worked to please multiple masters. In the end, bitter, sharper and deepening political divides between those masters, including an ultimate master to whom Bassett did not officially answer but whom he dared not disappoint – Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren – led to Bassett’s demise.
Bassett’s ascendancy to the superintendent’s post was an outgrowth of the Warren political machine’s once-ironclad grip on the district. His descent was paralleled by the waning control Fontana City Hall, which is yet dominated by Warren, now exercises at the district. Nevertheless, Warren still exercises control over two-fifths of the school board. It appears that as the power struggle between the city’s divergent political factions intensified, an atmosphere evolved in which Bassett’s continuing tenure as superintendent is no longer viable. As the factions never allied with Warren are now examining the action the district took under Bassett’s administration that were forced upon him by the Warren team’s previous command over the district, Bassett now finds himself scapegoated for those policies that are no longer operative.
Bassett is not an academic but rather a technocrat. After completing college more than 27 years ago, he went into the education field not as an educator but as someone who handled the nuts and bolts of running an organization on the business side, handling issues relating to finance and communications technology.
In 2016, he went to work with the Fontana School District, initially as a functionary in the realm of business services and technology. He steadily moved up the managerial ranks to become the associate superintendent of business services and the district’s chief technology officer.
Meanwhile, Warren, who had a degree in political science and was employed with City of Upland, in 2002 was appointed to a position on the Fontana City Council to fill out the two years remaining on Councilman Mark Nuami’s term as councilman when he was elected mayor that year. Running as an incumbent, Warren won election to the council in her own right in 2004 and then reelection in 2008. In 2010, Warren vied successfully for mayor, assembling relatively quickly thereafter a ruling coalition on the city council which solidified the power of her political machine. At once, the Warren Machine expanded its effort to control all political issues in Fontana and become a conspicuous wedge of influence over business and other community institutions, not the least of which was the Fontana Unified School District.
Despite Fontana having a demographic profile that strongly, on paper, favored Democrats, Warren, a committed Republican, worked with her party as well as with members of the construction and development industry to cultivate financial resources in the form of political contributions which she utilized to thwart the political ascendancy of strong Democratic candidates in the Fontana community while simultaneously pushing the candidacies of her fellow Republicans. Where established Democrats succeeded in Fontana, Warren on occasion sought to befriend them, in some cases by providing electioneering funds to keep them in office and thereby try to co-opt them. In some cases, this worked. Despite the fact that under California’s election code, local races are considered nonpartisan, in San Bernardino County, all political races are strongly influenced by party politics. Ultimately, despite demographics that should have favored the Democrats, Warren’s political skill allowed her to establish ruling coalitions on the city council. Beginning early on, Warren worked to establish a 3-to-2 majority of Republicans over Democrats on the city council and by 2018, three of her four colleagues on the council were members of the GOP, such that including her vote the Republicans had a 4-to-1 majority in Fontana, despite the fact that 53,886 of the city’s 108,380 voters, or 49.7 percent, are registered as Democrats while 21,854 or 20.2 percent are registered Republicans, which is less than the 25,006 or 23.1 percent who express no party preference. The remaining 7 percent of the city’s voters are members of more obscure political parties. Despite there being nearly two-and-a-half Democrats for every Republican in Fontana, under Warren’s leadership, 80 percent of the city council is Republican.
Warren sought and succeeded in asserting dominance over the school board. In 2012, during her second year as mayor, Warren surveyed the city’s political landscape, seeking vulnerabilities in the Democratic ranks. At that point, she set her sights on two of the members of Fontana’s Democratic leadership, those being school board members Leticia Garcia and Sophia Green. A recall effort against the two was initiated in July 2012, culminating in the successful recall of both on July 16, 2013.
From that point forward, Warren asserted tremendous influence over the school district. For Warren supporters, the mayor’s efforts were seen as a benign influence, one that sought to establish traditional Republican values in the community’s primary educational institution. Others, however, questioned Warren’s true motivation, believing she had ulterior motives. Some alleged she was using the school board as a recruiting ground for politicians who would adhere to her policy and philosophy dictates. Others believed she was misusing her influence to intensify what was an already-established aggressive development policy in the city. The district over the decades had accumulated substantial property, upon which 30 elementary schools, seven middle schools/junior highs, five high schools, two alternative high schools and a single adult high school had located their campuses. In addition to those campuses, the district had other properties for housing equipment and where potential future campuses might be located. According to her critics, Warren had designs on some of those properties, which she wanted the district to declare as surplus and sell off to her political supporters who were looking to snatch it up at a rock-bottom price and develop it, in many cases as warehouses, at a handsome profit. To those critics, Warren was working at cross purposes to the best interest of the community. At some future date, they predicted, the school district would have need of that property to construct more schools. But by the district selling that property, the opportunity to put that land to a beneficial educational use was being lost, they said, and carried with it the further disadvantage that the district would have to pay a substantial amount of money in the future to purchase property, at an escalated and inflated cost, to obtain land for those future campuses. In this way, Warren’s detractors said, she betrayed herself as being more dedicated to helping those bankrolling her political career by pouring money into her political coffers than the residents she was elected to represent.
One of Warren’s political associates was Jesse Armendarez, a successful real estate broker, who like Warren was a Republican. Armendarez was not reluctant to donate money to Republican candidates, such as Warren, and Republican causes. It turned out that Armendarez had political ambition of his own. Warren took Armendarez under her wing, serving as something of a political mentor to him. With Warren’s assistance, Armendarez was elected to the Fontana Unified School Board in November 2014. Two years later, again with Warren’s assistance, Armendarez successfully vied for the Fontana City Council.
Notefully, however, upon being sworn into office as a member of the city council in December 2016, a month after his electoral victory, Armendarez, in seeming defiance of not only tradition and standard political protocol but California law as well, refused to resign from his position on the school board, seeking to serve in both posts. Under the doctrine of incompatibility of offices, Armendarez was entitled to serve either as a member of the Fontana City Council or as a member of the Fontana Unified School District board, but he could not hold both positions simultaneously. Nevertheless, that is what he did in December 2016 and then into January 2017.
In 2013, then-Superintendent Cali Olsen-Binks had departed to serve as the superintendent in the Yucaipa-Calimesa School District and was replaced in November 2013 by Dr. Leslie Boozer. Boozer, however, departed in July 2016 to take on the superintendent’s position in the Northern Central California community of Dublin.
Upon Boozer’s departure, the school board had promoted Bassett into the position of interim superintendent while the district contracted with the Cosca Group to undertake a search/recruitment for Boozer’s replacement. Relatively soon after Bassett had moved into the acting superintendent’s role, Warren satisfied herself that he would make a suitable superintendent and that he would prove amenable to her dictates. The Cosca Group, however, was being methodical in its recruitment, interviewing and vetting of candidates, and would not allow itself to be stampeded into making an early recommendation. By the time the Cosca Group had completed its rankings and recommendations of those competing for the position, which included Bassett, the 2016 election season had unfolded and proceeded to its conclusion. It was not until December 14, 2016, which was the day after Armendarez’s December 13 swearing in as city councilman, that the Cosca Group presented its findings to the school board. It had been both Warren’s and Armendarez’s hope that the board would be able to come to a quick agreement, based upon the rankings of the candidates presented by the Cosca Group, to hire Bassett as the district’s full-fledged superintendent. While there was a general impression that Bassett was a good fit or perhaps, given his lengthy history with the district and his institutional knowledge, the best fit for the district, the board held off on making the appointment that night, primarily because the agenda for that meeting did not clearly specify that a hiring decision was to be made during the course of the meeting, and appointing anyone as superintendent on the spot could be construed as a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law. Instead, the district scheduled a hearing to decide on whether the board should ratify an employment contract with Bassett for its meeting on January 18, 2017.
So intent was Warren that Bassett should be hired as the superintendent that she was not willing to risk Armendarez resigning from the school board at that point, which would have reduced the school board to four members, thus creating a possibility that Bassett might not be confirmed as superintendent. Armendarez, having already taken up a position on the Fontana City Council, asserted that California did not clearly designate being a council member and a school board member in overlapping jurisdictions as incompatible. He carried on as if he could remain as a member of the school board.
What Armendarez was doing went against the advice of then-Fontana City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger and Fontana Unified School District General Counsel Mark Thompson, both of whom said that he was out of step with the “incompatibility clause” contained in California’s Government Code and that simultaneous holding of a position on a school board and city council where the borders of the district and city are congruent, coterminous, common or overlap constitutes the holding of incompatible offices and is a violation of Government Code Section 1099.
Two of the school board’s members – Mary Sandoval and Jason O’Brien – objected to Armendarez’s intransigence, while members of the community were preparing to go to the California Attorney General’s Office to initiate a quo warranto proceeding which would ultimately, they said, force Armendarez to give up either his council post or his school board position. In the meantime, and until such a remedy could be applied, Thompson said, Armendarez had the school district over a barrel because under California’s Government Code and Elections Code, a position held by a duly elected official cannot be vacated until the officeholder officially resigns, even though elsewhere in the Government and Elections Code the holder of incompatible offices forfeits the prior office he holds upon entering the second elected office.
Even though Fontana’s city attorney was both privately and publicly counseling Armendarez and Warren that Armendarez had to give up his school board position, Warren encouraged Armendarez to stand firm. Despite all of the grumbling and contretemps going on around him, Armendarez continued to serve as both a councilman and school board member until January 18, 2017, at which point he voted, together with board members Matt Slowik and Peter Garcia, to hire Bassett, with Sandoval and O’Brien voting in opposition. Thereupon, Armendarez resigned.
In this way, Bassett came into office beholden not only to Armendarez, Slowik and Garcia, all of whom were members of Warren’s political machine, but Warren as well. Over the years, in response to Warren’s dictates, ones which were conveyed quietly and out of public view, Bassett did his best to comply with them. In time, Garcia, like Armendarez, was promoted by Warren and elected to a position on the Fontana City Council, where he is now a member of her ruling coalition. At present, there are two members of Warren’s political machine serving on the city council – Joe Armendarez, who is Jesse Armendarez’s brother, and Adam Perez.
At the same time, the board currently boasts three members – Mary Sandoval, Marcelino “Mars” Serna and Jennifer Quezada – who do not automatically fall into Warren’s camp.
This year, Warren is scheduled to seek reelection for the third time as mayor. So, too, must Mary Sandoval, Adam Perez and Mars Serna seek reelection to the school board. Riding on the outcome of the three school board races is whether Warren and her political machine will be able to reassert full control over the school board – meaning having members of her political machine lay claim to at least three of the five school board positions. In practical terms, this means having Perez gain reelection and dislodging either Sandoval or Serna from office and filling that position with someone aligned with Warren.
Warren is one of the most prolific political fundraisers in San Bernardino County. The latest documentation relating to Warren’s political campaign war chest available to the Sentinel shows that as of December 31, 2021, Warren had $252,584.53 in her campaign coffers. It is believed that she has boosted that amount at present by nearly $100,000 going into the upcoming political season. Warren has demonstrated a past pattern of dispensing her own political money to other candidates she has endorsed. It is thus anticipated that this year she will, in addition to carrying out an aggressive reelection campaign on her own behalf, assist Perez in his reelection bid while seeking to shore up the electoral effort of yet unidentified alternate candidates to Sandoval and Serna for the school board.
The Republican Party and its various arms, including Republican donors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, have not been shy in the past about supporting Republican candidates for local office in San Bernardino County, including those for school board, despite the official and ostensible nonpartisan nature of local races. In the past, Democrats have not been as energetic or generous in making sure that candidates for local office who identify or affiliate as Democrats are equally well supplied with campaign money, which the late Assemblyman and California State Treasurer Jess Unruh called “The mother’s milk of politics.” More recently, however, both San Bernardino County-based and Fontana-based Democratic Party activists have become aware of the degree to which they have been out-coordinated and outhustled by local Republican Party functionaries, including Warren. The greater efficiency of the Republicans has included efforts by Phil Cothran Sr., a successful Fontana-based insurance agent who over the last three decades has been a major donor to the Republican Party and Republican candidates. Cothran is credited with having been a key Warren backer. In 2021, Cothran acceded to the position of chairman of the San Bernardino Republican Central Committee. His son, Phil Cothran Jr., was elected to the Fontana City Council in 2018 with the backing of Acquanetta Warren, after which he became a member of Warren’s four-member ruling coalition. He is up for reelection with her this year.
Over the last several years, Bassett has complied with directives given to him on high that emanated from Warren, many of which involved action that was not officially prompted by any officially-recorded direction or suggestion from members of the school board and which was initiated prior to any vote taken by the school board. In some cases, the district divested itself of properties which were once intended for use as school campuses or district facilities that ended up in the hands of developers who were intent on converting the land to warehouses. One such property was located near Primrose Avenue, another at Arrow Highway and Citrus Avenue, along with one at Maple Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. Allegations surfaced that in at least one case, a district property was acquired by the Water of Life Church, with which Warren is associated, under an arrangement that allowed the church to realize a profit when it unloaded the property to an entity ready to develop the property. Allegedly, Warren, through her control of the city council, which has ultimate land use authority in Fontana, has been able to guarantee the developability of those properties subsequent to their sale by the district.
It was reported to the Sentinel that Bassett took whatever actions he did in complying with the directives that came down from Warren with an assurance that the mayor’s domination of the school board would provide him with a layer of protection. At present, however, it appears that Warren only has reliable control over two of the board votes.
A further report received by the Sentinel is that Bassett has recently fallen into disfavor with Perez. Perez for some time has been gunning to have the school district’s chief of police, Lee Powell, terminated. Bassett did not acquiesce to the pressure to fire Powell, the Sentinel is informed. Rather, Bassett allowed a complaint Powell filed with the district related to treatment he had been accorded by Perez to be processed by the school district’s assistant superintendent of people, Douglas Staine. The investigation of the claim ended with Staine entering a determination sustaining the complaint, the Sentinel was informed. Additionally, when Powell’s attorney, Linda Scott, moved to take Bassett’s deposition, consisting of sworn statements provided as answers to questions posed to him by Scott, the superintendent did not make, the Sentinel is reliably informed, a denial of Powell’s allegation that he was being targeted by Perez.
For a confluence of reasons, Bassett this summer found himself in the most vulnerable position he has ever been in since he moved into the superintendent’s role.
On the agenda for this week’s July 6 board meeting were three items to be discussed in closed session, consisting of a discussion of labor relations, personnel matters and a conference with the district’s legal counsel pertaining to existing litigation.
Upon adjourning into that closed session, the board remained behind closed doors where its deliberations were out of the sight and earshot of the public for what was an uncommon amount of time. The board emerged, briefly, to address the public and take a vote as to whether it should resume further closed-door discussions and extend the meeting until 2 a.m. By a vote of 4-to-1, with Sandoval dissenting, the board elected to return to its closed session. The board thus spent more than four hours in private discussions, the exact and full nature of which were undisclosed. Upon emerging for a second time from its closed session, Ryan DiGiulio, the district’s associate superintendent for business services, had taken Bassett’s position on the dais. At that point, Quezada, as the board president announced, “The board did take action in closed session. The board took action to terminate permanent certificated employee number 4167, effective May 27, 2022. The motion was made by Board Member Perez, seconded by Vice President Armendarez, and carried a 5-0 vote.”
The following day, the Sentinel was contacted and informed that Bassett had been terminated.
The Sentinel initiated an effort to confirm the report. After a review of the available board meeting video, material and information, the Sentinel inquired with the district as to whether permanent certificated employee number 4167 was Bassett. The district declined to identify permanent certificated employee number 4167.
The Sentinel contacted the district office, seeking to make contact with Bassett. The Sentinel was informed that Bassett was not present on the district premises.
The Sentinel contacted numerous district employees, using various means. Three district employees, after obtaining assurances of anonymity, stated that Bassett was no longer serving in the capacity of superintendent. One of those, who functions at the senior level of the district and has direct and constant access to Bassett, said he had been terminated by the board, but said it was possible that the terms of Bassett’s departure were yet up in the air.
The Sentinel redoubled its efforts, reaching Clarissa Trejo, the district’s executive director for marketing, communications and engagement. Trejo insisted that Bassett was yet serving in the capacity of superintendent.
Trejo acknowledged that the board had been engaged in an extended closed session the previous night, but said, “That discussion was about making an adjustment to his contract,” Trejo said. “The board had previously provided raises to all teachers, certificated personnel and classified personnel for the 2021-22 school year. The board met in closed session to consider the same increase for the associate superintendent and the superintendent. That all took place in closed session, not in open session. No action was taken.”
Asked directly if the board had discussed terminating Bassett, Trejo said, “There has not been any conversation I am aware of related to his termination. I don’t know where that information is coming from.”
The Sentinel asked Trejo if the claim filed by Powell and the district’s inability to dispose of it had boiled over into discontent with Bassett’s performance that had resulted in resolve to remove him as superintendent. She said the board’s discussion on Wednesday evening and early Thursday “were not related to any claims of action.”
The Sentinel inquired about the district’s sale of property and whether either unauthorized sale of land or recommendations from Bassett that the district divest itself of certain properties had antagonized the board.
“That [selling district property] is not something the superintendent has the authority to do,” Trejo said. “A sale of land would go through the proper channels. The superintendent would not be able to do engage in a sale, which would go through our business services department and would have to be ratified in advance.”
Confronted with the statements made by district employees indicating Bassett is out as superintendent, Trejo at that point indicated the Sentinel was not the only means through which reports and rumors to that effect were being aired, saying, “I just met with associate superintendent of people. He confirmed there is no change in the employment status of the superintendent.”
After the Sentinel’s interaction with Trejo, further reports bounded in to indicate Bassett had been separated from the district. The Sentinel sought direct explanations from all five members of the board, inquiring through their district offices and directly by means of calls to their personal or business phones.
The Sentinel made multiple phone calls to Michael Garcia, the district’s director of family and community engagement.
“The board did have an agenda item regarding the superintendent’s contract,” Garcia said in a responding text message. “No action was taken, and his employment status has not changed.”
Neither Trejo nor Garcia explained why DiGiulio had assumed Bassett’s role during the open session of the meeting on July 6 and into the morning hours of July 7, and neither would offer an explanation of why Bassett was not in his office at the district on July 7 and July 8.
Multiple calls made directly to Bassett’s cell phone, clearly outlining the reports of his termination and asking for clarification, were not returned.
Despite Quezada’s assurance she would return a call seeking her input, she had not responded to the Sentinel by press time. Neither did Armendarez nor Perez respond to the Sentinel’s inquiries.
The Sentinel spoke briefly with Sandoval, who said she and the remainder of the board had been instructed to make no public statements regarding Bassett and his status with the district. She said any substantive response by members of the board relating to Bassett would be a violation of the Brown Act.
Serna told the Sentinel, “I serve all the community, and in trying to be ethical and moral and respectful, I am not prepared to make a statement at this time. I do understand that things need to be told and given in an accurate manner. In due time I will be ready to speak, just not right now, while I’m in on the ground floor, so to speak, of a political effort, and it is not the right time. I hope you can respect that.”
By Mark Gutglueck