Unable To Keep Superintendents In Place For Long, SBCUSD Moves To Lure Arellano From Redlands

Current Redlands Unified School District Superintendent Mauricio Arellano in April will become San Bernardino City Unified School District’s third fully-installed superintendent in three years and the eighth person to function in the superintendent capacity within the same time period.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District’s unfortunate history with regard to holding onto a superintendent has been an issue complicating the district’s ability to deliver quality education to the students entrusted to it for more than a decade. While some are holding out hope that Arellano, who is himself a product of the school district and as such one who was able to achieve scholastically, will provide salvation for the troubled system in one of the State of California’s most troubled social and economic climates, there have already registered problematic indicators with regard to the relationship now being formed between the district and Arellano for at least some longtime observers of the district and the mistakes it has made in the past. The litany of superintendents in the district going back to 2013 makes clear that the challenge of supervising the district is a demanding task, one made all the more difficult by the sometimes wicked political crosscurrents on the district’s school board. Thus, Arellano, in addition to addressing lower-than-average academic achievement of the students attending San Bernardino Schools, will need to contend with demands from at least some of the school district trustees to meet their priorities in terms of hiring their friends, family members and supporters into district positions and simultaneously making sure that family members and political donors to some of those school board members get contracts to supply the school district with supplies and services. There is concern that in this overpoliticized atmosphere, precious district funding and resources will be squandered and unqualified hirees will compromise the district’s already lagging educational mission.
It is not entirely clear whether Arellano fully appreciates the environment he will be stepping into from his present position in Redlands two months hence.
For a dozen years now, San Bernardino City Unified School District has been plagued by one superintendent after another either leaving the district in the lurch or being disenabled by his political masters on the school board and not being able to effectuate the creation of the learning environment considered to be a requisite for across-the-board student success.
In 2011, Superintendent Arturo Delgado, who was well-respected and highly-thought-of as both an educator and administrator but exasperated at the local chapter of the California School Employees Association Local 183 representing district employees filing administrative and legal challenges to his refusal to make hirings according to the union’s wishes, jumped at the chance to become the superintendent of Los Angeles County Schools.
The district brought in Richard Bray, a retired superintendent who had led the Tustin School District in Orange County, the Hesperia Unified School District, the Soledad Union School District in Monterey County and the Adelanto School District, to hold the fort down until Delgado’s replacement could be found. The district took nearly a year to find that candidate, Dale Marsden.
The process of bringing Marsden’s in, however, pointed up a certain vulnerability that district officials, at that time as currently, were willing to overlook. Marsden had been the Victor Elementary School District Superintendent since 2008. Prior to that, he was that district’s deputy superintendent, a position he had been promoted into after having originally been hired by the Victor Elementary School District as its director of quality and development. The Victor Elementary School District had made a substantial investment in Marsden, one which paid off in the improvements in student test scores on state administered academic tests that were yielded among a majority of the district’s students while he was deputy superintendent and superintendent. The Victor Elementary School District Board thought it had an understanding with Marsden that he would remain dedicated to that district and its students for some time to come, perhaps for the entirety of his career as an educator.
At the seeming drop of a hat, however, Marsden had abandoned the Victor Elementary School District to take on the superintendent’s role at San Bernardino City Unified, representing for him a professional step – or maybe two or three steps – up, given that San Bernardino City Unified is the ninth largest of the Golden State’s 944 school districts.
Not quite eight years later, for a reason that is not altogether clear, Marsden bolted from San Bernardino Unified, announcing in December 2019 that he would leave the district in March 2020. Marsen is now the chief executive officer and self-proclaimed “chief visionary” of Tomorrow’s Talent, LLC, which he founded in July 2020 for the purpose of engaging in “educational engagement and workforce development,” which is marketed to school districts, community colleges and trade and technical schools.
Marsden’s departure came at what turned out to be the worst possible time, as just as he was leaving, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, resulting in the wholesale closure of schools throughout the state and a changeover to remote learning in which classes were taught via the internet. The district, rudderless, was required to no only deal with the crisis on the fly, but do so without an individual accustomed to the district administering the continuing programs.
Deputy Superintendent Harold Vollkommer was promoted to serve as the district’s interim superintendent.
In March 2021, a full year after Marsden’s exit, the district announced it had convinced Harry “Doc” Ervin, then the superintendent of the Bakersfield City School District, to begin with the 2021-22 school year/fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021 as San Bernardino City Unified’s superintendent.
Ervin came in a month early and went to work at once in an effort to get the district prepared to return to in-class instruction after the district had functioned on a remote learning model the entirety of the 2020-21 school year.
Ervin, who was not aware nor deferential too nor hamstrung by the board members’ various political connections or commitments to the board members electioneering fund donors, forthrightly set about rededicating the district to its educational priorities, which he perceived as having been compromised by the district’s accumulation of less-than fully productive or efficient contracts for services and programs. Many of those programs and services were pet programs of some of the district’s board members, ones which generated money for their family members, friends, associates, supporters or political patrons. Erwin, in the view of some too aggressively, undertook a thorough examination of the efficiency of the programs and contracts the district had involved itself in with regard to how those contracts met the district’s educational mission and fulfilled identifiable goals. As he was not previously familiar with the lay of the land politically in San Bernardino, Ervin did not fully appreciate that many of those with school district contracts had connections with the district’s board members, either familial, associational or in terms of providing political donations and support for certain board members electoral efforts. When Ervin either recommended to the board that it not renew some of those contracts or used his own authority as superintendent to suspend or discontinue the contracts, Board Member Danny Tillman and then-Board Member Barbara Flores by September 2021 – barely three months after his arrival – became upset over their family members, friends, associates or political supporters losing the revenue those contracts represented. By October 2021, Tillman and Flores had recruited Board Member Abigail Rosales-Medina to join with them in firing a shot across Ervin’s bow by engaging with the consultants and service vendors who were seeing their contracts canceled, those contractors’ employees, family members and associated to have them turn out at a school board meeting during which an evaluation of Ervin’s performance as superintndent was to take place and his future employment prospect with the district – including possible termination – was on the table.
In the face of the criticism Ervin was being subjected to, board members Margaret Hill, Gwen Rogers, Scott Wyatt and Mayra Ceballos stood by Ervin, such that Tillman, Flores and Rosales-Medina were one vote short of being able to fire him.
Confident he had backing for the reforms he was undertaking in concert with an initiative he had dubbed the “Framework for Excellence,” which was intended to enhance student performance and achievement through an emphasis on reading, mathematics and language development, Ervin pressed on, continuing to antagonize, most notably, Tillman and Flores.
In December 2021, Board Member Hill died, at which point Ervin’s margin of survivability as superintendent eroded. Tillman, Flores and Rosales-Medina found themselves in a 3-to-3 deadlock with Rogers, Wyatt and Ceballos over Ervin’s continuing tenure with the district. Tillman, Flores and Rosales-Medina did not have sufficient political muscle on the board to fire Ervin, yet needing a fourth vote to cashier him. In January and February of 2022, the district made an effort to find a replacement for Hill through soliciting applicants to fill out her term.
Toward that end, the board interviewed 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, Leticia Garcia, 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, Rosales-Medina and Flores were not convinced the addition would agree to terminate Erwin or the other three board members – Wyatt, Ceballos and Dowdy-Rodgers – were unconvinced that the person to be appointed would be willing to keep Erwin in place.
At the May 3 board meeting, Erwin announced he was departing from the district as of July 1, 2022.
In the November 2022 election, Tillman, Flores and Rosales-Medina were up for reelection. 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.
After all of the tallying was completed, according to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters, 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.
Despite what would have otherwise have represented the district board being out to its standard seven members, the board yet remained one member short. In the same November 8, 2022 election, Rodgers 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. In assuming the county board of education position, Rogers resigned as a board member with the school district.
The school board on January 24 got around to redressing that gap, voting to appoint Felicia Alexander replace Rodgers.
With Alexander in place after her swearing in on Tuesday February 7, the board made an official vote to hire Arellano.
For Arellano, whose parents emigrated from Mexico and raised him in San Bernardino where he graduated from San Bernardino High School before attending and obtaining degrees from the University of California at Riverside, taking on the superintendent assignment is something of a second homecoming. He began his teaching career with the San Bernardino City Unified School District as a bilingual elementary school teacher. After teaching for a nearly a decade, he transitioned into educational administration, becoming the Palm Springs Unified School District’s assistant superintendent of human resources in 2003. In September 2017, Redlands Unified hired him as superintendent.
As is likely to be the case in San Bernardino, Arellano’s experience in Redlands was fraught with non-academic challenges, most prominently a string of what turned into criminal cases against teachers within the district who were charged with sexual improprieties involving students.
The cases of Sean Ramiro Lopez, Laura Elizabeth Whitehurst and Kevin Patrick Kirkland, who were accused and ultimately convicted of having sexual relations with teen age students, predated Arellano’s arrival in Redlands. Those matters, however, featured patterns of the district minimizing or seeking to hide those transgressions, a practice that appeared to continue under Arellano’s watch. Information relating to teachers Joseph Nardella and Brian Townsley and Daniel Bachman, who worked in Redlands High Schools theater department having relations with students was kept under wraps by the district under Arellano’s watch until events beyond the control of the district overtook those situations.
In time, however, after Arellano became settled into the position of superintendent and the district was buffeted by lawsuits brought on behalf of victims and extensive adverse publicity, he undertook efforts to prevent further recurrences of such scandals, under the aegis of an initiative titled Actions Create Trust Now, which explicitly prohibited teachers from touching, or having physical contact with, students; telling jokes of a sexual nature; engaging in any sort of sexual repartee with students; interacting with students on social media or by telephone or texting; being alone with a student out of the view or presence of others; devoting any attention to a single student; calling a student by a pet name or any term of endearment; exchanging personal gifts, cards or communications with a student; traveling in a personal vehicle with a student in anything other than an emergency situation; and engaging in any flirtation with students.
In a letter to the Redlands community and district parents dated February 8, Arellano wrote, “Last night I was offered and accepted the position of superintendent for the San Bernardino Unified School District. As many of you may not know, I was raised in and started my career in San Bernardino. Serving as the superintendent of Redlands Unified School District has been the highlight of my career and I am grateful for all of the friendships that we have built during my tenure in Redlands. Accepting this position was not an easy decision for me and my family but the allure for me to return back [sic] to San Bernardino and support the 47,000 students whose life experiences and stories are similar to mine proved to be a determining factor.”
While some considered the emotional attraction that San Bernardino represented to Arellano to be an indicator that Arellano has a serious commitment to the San Bernardino City Unified School District and will provide it with the continuity of leadership it has lacked now over the tours of several superintendents, others saw his willingness to leave Redlands Unified in the midst of an ongoing school year to be a troubling reminder of the readiness of Delgado and Marsden to depart from their ongoing assignments when another opportunity presented itself.
Given Ervin’s recent experience, questions yet remain as to whether Arellano is ready to accept the mandates of his political masters on the school board if he perceives those marching orders as clashing with the best interests of the district’s students and, if so, the degree to which he will be willing to compromise the district’s educational mission to hang on to his job, which is providing him with $301,851.43 in salary, $77,081 in perquisites and add-ons and $80,112 for a total annual compensation of $459,044.43.

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