Education Lab

Parlier Unified board: Three run as a slate

Parlier Unified incumbent Mary Helen Villanueva and newcomers Melissa Cano and David Torrez hope they can win enough votes by running as a slate in November's election to fill three seats on the school board.

Their opponents say it is part of a larger plan to gain a board majority to oust Superintendent Rick Rodriguez. The slate candidates have the backing and support of current board member Enrique "Rick" Maldonado, who often votes with Villanueva against three current board members. Two of those three are up for re-election -- Benjamin Tamez Jr. and Trinidad Pimentel.

Altogether, seven candidates are vying for the three at-large seats on the five-member board. In addition to the three slate candidates, Tamez, Pimentel and newcomers Zonia Tovar and Rick Velasco are also seeking election to the board.

Parlier's governing board oversees seven schools, 3,462 students and 326 employees.

The race has drawn the attention of Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell, who hopes Parlier's school board won't be entirely revamped. That could affect the progress the district has made in recent years, he said. "I want the board to stay intact. It's so critical for the kids."

Tovar, a 38-year-old teacher who works for Kings Canyon Adult School in Reedley and has two children in Parlier Unified schools, said she is concerned that the slate candidates, with Maldonado's help, want to replace Rodriguez.

"Right now the board is divided," she said. "Mary Helen Villanueva and Maldonado are always together."

Maldonado could not be reached to comment.

Tovar credits Rodriguez, who has been superintendent since 2006, with helping to boost the district's Academic Performance Index -- a state measure of student achievement based on standardized testing. State data released this week show that Parlier Unified, located in a predominantly farmworker community, climbed 50 points on the API, one of the biggest increases in the Valley.

The district's finances have also improved under Rodriguez, Tovar said. Parlier Unified was millions of dollars in the red when he took over, but now has a balanced budget and a healthy reserve fund. "Right now the district is the best that it's ever been," she said.

Rodriguez said he knew of no plan to oust him, although he is aware a slate of candidates is running.

Villanueva, 58, said she, Cano and Torrez decided to run as a team because it makes them stronger and more electable. A homemaker and former instructional aide/migrant tutor, Villanueva would not confirm or deny plans to oust Rodriguez and said she is just looking forward to the November election.

"Whatever happens, happens. We are very positive," she said.

Cano, a 38-year-old homemaker, refused to answer questions unless the other two slate candidates were with her. "Because we are running as a slate, if we are going to be making any comment, we would make it together," she said. Cano did confirm opponents' claims that her children don't attend Parlier schools; they attend Sanger schools. "That is correct," she said.

Torrez, a maintenance clerk, could not be reached to comment.

Incumbent Tamez said the district has been making progress, and bringing new board members on board could derail that. "It would be a major disruption, because we have been working cooperatively with our superintendent and cabinet staff members," said the 59-year-old private investigator and minister.

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