In The Fontana School District, Serving The City’s Political Establishment Is As Much Of A Priority As Education

More than six months after former Fontana Unified School District Superintendent Randall Bassett was forced out of his post by a troika of the district’s board members, Miki Inbody has been chosen as his long-term replacement.
Inbody’s contract is to go into effect officially on February 1.
Bassett was felled by vicious crosscurrents among his masters on the district’s board. Bitter, sharper and deepening political divides between those on the board, as well as the demands of 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.It now falls to Inbody to see whether she can carry out the district’s basic mission of educating the students within the Fontana community while simultaneously seeing to it that district policy extending to hiring decisions among administrators, teachers and non-teaching staff includes providing jobs for individuals those with political power in the former steel town want to see employed for either personal or political purposes.
In Fontana, the school district has been considered a political plum that in addition to existing for educational purposes, serves to advance the interests of those with standing in the municipal, social, commercial and industrial establishment. Those in control of City Hall have been able, through the school board, to provide employment as rewards to supporters of members of the city council. Moreover, the school board over the last several decades has on occasion served as an incubator for future city council members.
In 2012 Warren initiated a recall effort against two of the district’s board members, Leticia Garcia and Sophia Green, 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.
In 2013 Cali Olsen-Binks, the daughter-in-law of former long-time board member Kathy Binks, left the district and was replaced 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, then the district’s associate superintendent of business services and the district’s chief technology officer, 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, Mayor Warren, who had achieved primacy as Fontana’s leading political figure with here election as mayor in 2010 after eight years on the city council, satisfied herself that he would make a suitable superintendent and that he would prove amenable to her dictates.
There were three votes on the school board supporting Warren in her favoring of Bassett – Matt Slowik, Peter Garcia and Jesse Armendarez. Armendarez had first been elected to the school board with Warren’s assistance in 2014 and he was vying, again with Warren’s support, assistance and guidance, for the Fontana City Council in 2016. School board members Mary Sandoval and Jason O’Brien, however, were less than convinced that Bassett would make the best superintendent, concerned that he was being promoted less because of his comprehensive qualification to lead the district and more because he would be a rubberstamp for anything that Warren wanted done.
The Cosca Group, meanwhile, 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, during which Armendarez had proven successful in his candidacy for city council. 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. Jesse Armendarez has gone on to higher political office as a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. At present, there are two members of Warren’s political machine serving on the school board – 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.
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 became questionable.
Exacerbating the circumstance was that last summer an administrative investigation into the conduct of then-Fontana School Police Detective David Wibert, who had been with the district since 2008, was reaching a critical stage. Wibert was accused by Officer Christian Shaw of having punched an unruly Summit High School student in 2012 and with being unreasonably aggressive toward a student involved in the district’s Fontana Leadership Intervention Program. Shaw maintained that District Police Sergeant Dennis Barnett had for years failed to rein in Wibert.
The degree to which Bassett needed to navigate treacherous political waters is illustrated by the consideration that Wibert is the son of former Fontana City Councilwoman Lydia Salazar Wibert, who was one of Acquanetta Warren’s rivals on the city council.
As the factions never allied with Warren were 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 found himself scapegoated for those policies that were no longer operative or which had questionable applicability with only two of Warren’s extended team members on the board.
Without fanfare and without explanation, Bassett ceased to be a presence at the district in early July 2022. It was announced a few weeks later that he would leave the district as of August 1, 2022. In the immediate aftermath of Bassett’s absence, Ryan DiGiulio, the district’s associate superintendent for business services replaced him. Beginning in September, with the new school year under way, Juan M. López served as interim superintendent. He is now to be replaced by Inbody.
Whereas Bassett was a technocrat, Inbody is an academic. Bassett, who began with the district in 1998, was an educator but handled the nuts and bolts of running an organization on the business side, handling issues relating to finance and communications technology.
Inbody earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and administrative services credential from Cal State San Bernardino. She taught in the Fontana Unified School District in the 1990s and later took on the role of assistant principal and principal with the district. She left the district to go to the Redlands Unified School District in November 2011 as the director of curriculum and instruction and moved into the assistant superintendent post overseeing educational services in July 2013. She then returned to Fontana Unified in July 2017 as an associate superintendent of teaching and learning. In October 2020 she was hired as the assistant superintendent of education support services with the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools since October 2020.
Inbody was educated in the Fontana Unified School District, where she attended Maple Elementary, Alder Junior High and graduated from Fontana High School. She studied at Chaffey College before attending San Bernardino State.
“Like many,” Inbody said in a press release from the district, “I am an example of Fontana’s hope for all their students. We are resilient, compassionate and committed. My personal and professional journey has prepared me to serve Fontana Unified School District and lead it to its next level. Having been raised in Fontana, I know firsthand the struggles of many of our families. As a first-generation college graduate, I am proof that success in school is not dependent on your zip code nor conditions in your home.”
“The Board of Education is proud to bring back home one of its own students and employees to lead the district,” Serna, who is at present the board president, said. He said that Inbody “is known as a strategic leader with strong collaborative leadership skills. She has an unwavering belief that all students have promise, as well as a history of refining and improving curriculum and instruction.”
In November 2022, Serna and Sandoval, who are not members of Warren’s political network, were reelected, as was Perez, who is aligned with Warren. In 2024, the terms of Joe Armendarez and Quezada will expire.
If Warren succeeds in getting Armendarez reelected and can field a candidate who is successful in replacing Quezada, it is likely that Inbody’s tenure as superintendent will end shortly thereafter.
-Mark Gutglueck

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