State retakes West Fresno school district

In an unprecedented move, the state has stripped power from West Fresno Elementary School District trustees for a second time.

The state took over the district in 2003 because of poor student performance, fiscal disarray and criminal allegations against board members, among other concerns. Last year, the state decided the district had improved, and officials returned some authority to its board. If progress continued, the state was poised to restore all local control.

State officials were disappointed.

In a Dec. 4 letter, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell criticized the district's five-member governing board for failing to meet its end of the agreement. O'Connell cited problems including unruly board meetings and violations of the state's open-meetings law.

The letter said three of the five governance areas restored to the district last year -- community relations/governance, management of personnel, and facilities -- will again be under state control.

The board "is not willing or able to govern the district," O'Connell wrote. The letter lacked details about specific incidents and did not name board members responsible for the district's problems.

Kent Ashworth, the state administrator assigned to the district, and Fresno County schools superintendent Larry Powell both recommended the rollback, O'Connell said.

The 900-student district south of downtown Fresno is now required to turn over all local control to Ashworth, who has worked with the local board for four years. The district board will serve in merely an advisory capacity.

This is the first time the state has taken back local authority after having restored it, said Scott Hannan, director of school fiscal services with the California Department of Education.

Even taking over school districts is a rarity. Since 1991, the state has taken over nine school districts because of fiscal and management problems, according to California Department of Education records.

The news is not all bad. The district has improved in some areas, including test scores, Powell said. The district has an elementary school and a middle school.

Powell also said the district will retain some local authority because it gets to keep its acting superintendent, Jill Tafoya. That's something the state doesn't typically allow.

Tafoya is from the county office of education and was appointed this summer to replace board-hired Superintendent Ernesto Martinez, who is being investigated for a matter district leaders have yet to disclose.

Many in the community are frustrated.

The state's decision is a major setback, said Robert Mitchell of southwest Fresno, a retired Fresno police sergeant and longtime community activist.

Mitchell questioned Ashworth's effectiveness, noting that the state administrator has been working with the school board since 2005.

"Maybe he is deficient," Mitchell said. "The captain of the ship bears responsibility when it hits an iceberg."

Ashworth defended himself. He said board members don't always follow his advice. The board had made progress, he said, but the dynamic of the board changed with the election of two new members last year. Among Ashworth's recommendations will be to have board members participate in workshops conducted by the California School Boards Association.

School board president Henry Hendrix could not be reached to comment.

Darrell Carter, who has been on the school board six years and is vice president, said he understands the state decision but doesn't necessarily agree with all its findings.

"I'm not happy about it," he said. "But the state has an obligation, a duty to do what it needs to do."

Carter said the district has made tremendous progress, and that the board will do whatever is necessary to satisfy the state and ensure children are properly served.

"The only thing I can do is state that I follow protocol and procedure," he said.

But the state found the board, as a whole, did not follow the rules.

Violations outlined in the state letter said board meetings failed to focus on matters of student achievement and instead focused on personal agendas. The state did not provide examples.

The state said the board set a bad example in working relationships with its administrative team and cited at least two public occasions in September when an unnamed board member resorted to "derogatory name-calling in reference to the State Administrator."

It also blamed the board, in large part, for the resignation of Linda Levesque, the district's chief business officer, who left in October.

The state said meetings were held in an uncivil manner and referenced a particularly unruly Aug. 18 board meeting that resulted in arguing and accusations. One board member, on a visit to an elementary school, referred to a staff member "in crude and debasing language" in front of students, the letter said.

Board members improperly interfered in personnel matters, and the board failed to comply with the formal bidding procedures on school projects, the state found.

And the board has failed to adhere to the Ralph M. Brown Act -- the state's open-meetings law -- by discussing items not on the board meeting agenda or ignoring items that should have been discussed. The board also declined opportunities suggested by the state for training on Brown Act requirements.

Arlene Muñoz, vice president of the West Fresno Elementary PTA, said she doesn't want to see the board's problems seep into the classroom and is disappointed the district has backtracked.

"I feel sad they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing," she said.