Education Lab

Parlier Unified board puts superintendent on leave after grand jury report

Parlier Unified School District superintendent Gerardo Alvarez was placed on paid administrative leave by the district’s board after a grand jury report in 2015.
Parlier Unified School District superintendent Gerardo Alvarez was placed on paid administrative leave by the district’s board after a grand jury report in 2015. Fresno Bee file

Parlier Unified School District trustees voted Tuesday night to place Superintendent Gerardo Alvarez on paid administrative leave, following a grand jury report that found the district had misused millions of dollars and made unnecessary purchases.

The Board of Trustees voted in closed session late Tuesday to place Alvarez on administrative leave effective immediately. He will remain on leave pending an outside investigation of the grand jury’s allegations of misconduct.

The board has directed that an independent investigation be conducted to assist with its response to the report, according to a statement written by Parlier trustee Edgar Pelayo. It is unclear who will conduct that investigation.

Deputy Superintendent Edward Lucero will act as superintendent in the interim.

The grand jury report, released last week, found that Parlier Unified administrators and trustees gave themselves raises, went on trips, increased the number of lawyers and administrators on staff and paid millions for excessive consultants. The report accuses Alvarez of hiring, promoting or giving raises to his and trustees’ friends and family members. Alvarez has hired more administrators than other local districts of comparable size, and these new hires’ roles or purpose are not clearly defined.

The report also said Alvarez and Parlier Unified trustees waste money by holding meetings at restaurants instead of district offices. Witnesses told jurors that Alvarez and some trustees believe this practice is “a reward for their service.”

The Parlier trustees take the grand jury’s allegations, findings and recommendations seriously, according to Tuesday night’s statement.

“As the report notes, many of these allegations are part of Parlier Unified’s history. Nevertheless, as current trustees, we intend to approach these matters critically and make changes where necessary,” the release said. “The board holds the trust placed in it by the Parlier community in the highest regard. We believe taking a critical look at the management and operations of our district is best for our students.”

In the statement, the board says transparency is important going forward, but the Parlier Faculty Association — a member of the California Teachers association — takes issue with that.

According to an email obtained by The Bee, Lucero asked all Parlier Unified employees to “refrain from making any public comments” regarding the grand jury report, and said failure to do so could result in termination.

“While all of us in the district will no doubt have thoughts and opinions regarding this report, we would ask that you also consider refraining from speculating about the report, and instead take this opportunity to redouble your focus on the business of educating our students in a safe and appropriate environment,” Lucero said in the email.

Lucero also asked employees to avoid media inquiries.

The California Teachers Association wrote a letter to Lucero last week asking him to retract that email, saying that it infringes on teachers’ First Amendment rights. The CTA will not hesitate to fight any disciplinary action taken against teachers who discuss the grand jury report, according to the letter.

“The intention of your email is to silence the voice of PFA and its members to speak to a matter of public concern, and has the effect to chill speech that is protected by the United State and California Constitutions,” the letter said. “They have the right to speak on behalf of matters affecting their work conditions.”

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Parlier board indicated it regretted the tone of the email that Lucero sent out at the board’s behest. The intent of the email was not to silence district employees but to encourage staff to share their thoughts with the Board directly, the statement said.

“Our primary purpose in the email was to communicate to every employee that the board is responsible for making all official public comments regarding the grand jury report,” the statement said.

In a separate email, Vice President Edgar Pelayo said the board had retracted the prior statement about disciplining employees who speak publicly on the grand jury report.

In a statement released by the Parlier Faculty Association, teachers said they were not surprised by the grand jury’s findings.

“As much as top district office administrators say students come first, they don’t. They are being forgotten,” the statement said. “It is ironic that the Parlier Unified School District is in trouble for its lack of transparency while school employees have been issued a gag order to not discuss the case.”

Lupe Leija, president of the Parlier Faculty Association, said Alvarez was only part of the problem and that his temporary absence is not a sufficient solution.

“The irony of this is that the grand jury report was not just about him. It’s about the board and many others,” she said. “They’re all involved and they are all responsible. The decisions that they have made have not been in the best interest of the students.”

Leija said the grand jury investigation is the latest chapter of a long history of unethical business practices at Parlier Unified that involve nepotism and ulterior motives. A state takeover is always the last solution, but there may not be another option, she said.

“For a long time it’s been who you know, not what you know,” Leija said. “I think we need brand new people in there at the top that had nothing to do with the district in the past.”

Bee staff writer Megan Ginise contributed to the story. Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays