Despite Elections To Fill 4 Positions On SBCUSD Board, Panel Is Still One Member Short

While the November 8 election did succeed in creating a significant changeover in terms of the composition of the the San Bernardino City Unified School Board, it did not cure the one-person deficit within its ranks that has existed for nearly a year at this point.
Margaret Hill, the venerable educator involved in local schools for nearly five decades, most of those as a teacher and administrator with San Bernardino City Unified before she was elected after her retirement to the district’s board in 2012, died on December 19, 2021.
That reduction of the board to six-sevenths strength had a profound and an up-to-the-present impact on the district and its dynamics.
Earlier in 2021, Harry “Doc” Erwin, then the superintendent of the Bakersfield City School District who before that had been the superintendent of the Greenfield Union School District in Monterey County, was persuaded to take the post of superintendent with San Bernardino City Unified as of June 1, 2021. San Bernardino City Unified had been seeking a leader since Dale Marsden’s abrupt December 2019 announcement that he would leave as superintendent in March 2020. While Erwin’s hiring was roundly and universally viewed as a major coup for the district, particularly as it was making a return to in-classroom instruction following the COVID-19-induced interruption of traditional on-campus learning, Erwin early on ran into stiff headwinds when he ruffled the feathers of at first two and then three members of the board. This came about when he inadvertently ripped the scabs off of several cronyistic and nepotistic blemishes that lay below the surface by undertaking a review of the district’s contractual relationships with a host of vendors and service providers.
Completely new to San Bernardino and unfamiliar with the political lay of the land, Erwin had no realistic way of knowing that among the 15 charter schools the district was sponsoring was one, the Savant Preparatory Academy of Business, of which Board Member Danny Tillman’s daughter, Eva Tillman, is the principal. Nor did Erwin know that Tillman’s wife, Tracy Tillman, was the chief financial officer of the Center for Youth and Community Development and its forerunner, the Boys and Girls Club of San Bernardino. The Center for Youth and Community Development was a service provider to the district. Erwin was equally ignorant that three entities which had contracts with the district – Lilia’s Interpreting Services; the Parent Organization Working for Education Rights, known by its acronym POWER; and Educational Achievement Services Incorporated, which is a corporate parent to the Family Leadership Institute or FLI – were owned by close friends and associates of Board Member Barbara Flores.
Lilia’s Interpreting Services, which had a contract that was not renewed by Erwin last year, is owned by Lilia Cisneros-Felix, Flores’ friend and associate. Teresa Alba is the president and CEO of the Parent Organization Working for Education Rights, which had a seven-month not-to-exceed $18,000 contract running from December 1, 2021 until June 30, 2022 to provide support and guidance in the district’s English learning program. Alba is a friend and close associate of Flores. Consuelo Martin is the chief operating officer of Educational Achievement Services Incorporated, which is a Nevada Corporation headquartered at 8255 South Las Vegas Boulevard Unit 415 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The school district had a $165,000 contract with Educational Achievement Services Incorporated’s Family Leadership Institute, paid in six $27,500 monthly installments to provide what was referred to as a “comprehensive parent leadership program.” It is believed that Consuelo Martin is an alias of Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who is another friend and associate of Barbara Flores.
By September 2021, both Tillman and Flores were alarmed at the manner in which Erwin was dismantling the district’s contractual relationships and financial support of entities involving either their family members or associates. In October 2021, they linked up with a third board member and their political ally, Abigail Medina, to test whether they could find a fourth vote to add to their three to either bring Erwin to heel or terminate him. During the course of the board’s October 5, 2021 meeting, Tillman, Medina and Flores and the supporters of Savant Preparatory Academy, the Center for Youth and Community Development, Lilia’s Interpreting Services, the Parent Organization Working for Education Rights and Family Leadership Institute, along with Eva Tillman, Tracy Tillman, Lilia Cisneros-Felix, Teresa Alba and Consuelo Martin took a run at Erwin, pressing to have him either shut down the program audits into the district’s contractors he was intent on carrying out or see him sacked. The requisite four votes to fire Ervin were not available, as board members Margaret Hill, Mayra Ceballos, Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers and Scott Wyatt stood by him and the principle of making sure that whatever programs the district sponsored would provide positive results and that it should not squander resources and funding on questionable programs. Erwin remained in place, braced by a bare 4-to-3 majority on the board.
Whatever job security Erwin had came to a close on December 19, 2021, with Hill’s death. Immediately, he faced a 3-to-3 deadlock on the panel with regard to his fate.
By January, there was an earnest effort to fill the gap brought on by Hill’s earthly exit.
The district looked to make an appointment to replace Hill, interviewing Joshua Augustus, Roland Horsh, Robert Nowosielski, Robert Silva, Alex Avila, Travon Martin, Tawnya Rhoades-Hensley, Elsa Valdez, Tressy Capps, Guillermina Mirelez, Viviana Romero, Francesca Villarreal, Pamela Montana, Michael Santos, Teran Zappia, Rachel Garvin, Henry Nickel, Tracie Scherzer and Leticia Garcia, all of whom applied for the appointment. The board gave serious consideration to Martin, Valdez, Avila, Montana and Garcia, but none was able to obtain a crucial fourth vote for the appointment because, ultimately, either Tillman, Medina and Flores were not convinced the addition would come over to their side and agree to terminate Erwin or the other three board members – Wyatt, Ceballos and Dowdy-Rodgers – were unsure that the person to be appointed would be willing to keep Erwin in place.
Erwin found himself in limbo. The three board members gunning to fire him did not have the crucial fourth vote they needed to hand him a pink slip. Nevertheless, he lacked a clear mandate to proceed with what he wanted to accomplish, as he had the backing of just three of the board’s members, one vote less than a majority on a seven-member panel and a stand-off on a six-sevenths strength board.
For the next three months, Erwin gamely pressed on, seeking to run the district and make improvements to the atmosphere of learning and the organization’s educational mission. Without clear support for his undertakings, however, he felt stymied, and he recognized the 3-to-3 board stalemate would continue through the remainder of the 2021-22 school year and would drag on into 2022-23, with the potential that the November 2022 election could result in a board majority that would be as hostile toward him as Tillman, Flores and Medina were. He decided to throw in the towel. At the May 3, 2022 board meeting, Erwin announced he was departing from the district as of July 1, 2022.
Up for reelection in November were Tillman, Flores and Medina. In addition, the district had the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters put on the ballot a special election, one that would allow the district’s voters to choose someone to fill out the final two years of the term on the board that Hill had been elected to in 2020.
Yesterday, December 8, the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters posted the final certified results for the election that had taken place a month earlier. Medina, with 11,278 or 14.92 percent of the 75,607 votes cast in the 11-person race, captured first place, extending her tenure by another four years. Tillman, with 11,186 or 14.79 percent, claimed second place and a continuing berth on the board. Flores, however, with 8,994 or 11.9 percent, came up short, finishing in fourth place behind Mary Ellen Abilez Grande, who polled 9,628 votes or 12.73 percent for third place. The other seven candidates – Patricia Dezan, Alex Avila, Francisco Ramirez, Tressy Capps, Veronica Saiz, Sonia Fernandez, and Rose Ward – collected 45.66 percent of the vote among them.
Meanwhile, in the contest to replace Hill over the next two years, five candidates competed: Francesca Villarreal, Mikki Cichocki, Esmeralda Negrete, Michael Santos and Travon Martin.
As it turned out, Cichocki, a former teacher and activist with the California Teachers Association, prevailed with 9,483 votes or 32.74 percent.
Thus, it would have seemed, the one-member deficit on the San Bernardino City Unified School District Board had been resolved, as the panel would now have seven members following the installment of Cichocki, Grande, Tillman and Medina that is to take place this month. As it turns out, however, that will not be the case.
Gwen Dowdy Rogers, one of the incumbent board members most recently elected in 2020, this year vied for a position on the San Bernardino County Board of Education in Area D. Competing against two others, Rogers captured 33,244 or 60.71 percent of the 54,760 votes cast, easily outdistancing former board member Gil Navarro, who had 18,343 votes or 33.5 percent, and Oscar Hinojosa, who garnered 3,173 or 5.79 percent. To assume the county board of education position, Rogers must resign as a board member with the school district.
After Cichocki and Grande join the remaining incumbents on the San Bernardino City Unified District Board, that panel will yet have only six members and will stay one member short until the board comes up with a plan to either appoint Rogers’ replacement or holds an election to do so.
-Mark Gutglueck

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