Three Central Unified board members are facing recall efforts after the board ousted a popular superintendent in February.
It’s the latest in the fallout from the 5-2 vote to terminate Mark Sutton, a decision some Central parents say was racially motivated and made behind closed doors.
A group of parents is now leading the push to recall trustees Philip Cervantes and Richard Solis. Another recall effort is underway against trustee Terry Cox, who voted against the ouster. The latter recall is spearheaded by Richard Martinez, who lost to Cox in the 2016 board election. Martinez is the husband of the president of the Central teachers union.
The recall efforts in an election year mean six of the board's seven seats are open, while social media efforts circulate to also recall Central Teachers Association president, Judee Gonzalez Martinez.
Parent Wendy Yribarren said she was shocked to hear in January that Sutton's contract might not be renewed after three years at his post. She started a petition to save his job, but Sutton was terminated without cause at a February board meeting, despite public comment overwhelmingly in his favor.
The board decided last week to begin a search for a new superintendent. Yribarren believes trustees may already have a candidate in mind.
The suggestion of behind-the-scenes collusion around Sutton's termination led parents to to file a Brown Act violation against the board. Announcing a search for a replacement, despite parents' continued efforts to reinstate Sutton, is further evidence that the board members aren't listening, Yribarren said.
Rushing the process of choosing a new superintendent in an election year also means the district may waste money, Yribarren said, as a new board may choose their own superintendent.
"There's no reason we can't have an interim superintendent until November," Yribarren said. "We asked them to please wait until November when voters will decide if we want them."
Parents filed notices of recall in March for trustees Solis and Cervantes, saying they'd lost faith in their representation.
A flyer from Solis' office was making the rounds last week, referring to the parents' efforts as "fake news."
"The Special Interest Group has decided to try and change the makeup of the board to be obligated to their wishes and to implement a system of cronyism," the flyer read.
Solis said in a text message that he is required to refer media inquiries to board president Cesar Granda. Granda could not be reached for comment by phone or email.
Cervantes also did not return The Bee's request for comment.
However, Cervantes did write a response to the recall that says he has to "balance the need for transparency with his obligation to honor Mr. Sutton's privacy."
"My Priority is and always will be the students of Central Unified," the letter reads. "To that end the collective Board voted to release Mr. Sutton as Superintendent and to seek a new direction."
In the last school year, about 16,000 students were enrolled in Central Unified.
At the Feb. 27 meeting that saw Sutton's ouster, Central parent Yvonne Sanchez questioned during public comment why the board was terminating Sutton's contract.
"With a minority-controlled board, are you concerned that the five of you who have been silent regarding his contract renewal are minorities?" Sanchez said. "Should we the public expect a minority superintendent as a replacement? Will this person be qualified, having prior superintendent experience? Do you feel this will go unnoticed by the public? Do you feel this decision will help you get re-elected in November?"
Sutton was in the final year of a three-year contract as Central's superintendent, and said he was not given a reason for his termination.
Sutton said his two prior evaluations were positive, and that if the board had any issues with his work, he didn't hear about them.
He would consider returning to his post, but only if the board members leading the termination push were replaced.
Cox said she was surprised to learn of the recall against her because she hadn't been served with a notice of intention. Election law mandates that elected officials be served with a notice before the petitioners begin gathering signatures.
Martinez did not return a request for comment.
Central parent Aaren Rodrigues believes the recall against Cox is a form of revenge, as Cox did not vote to terminate Sutton's contract. She said the parent group is adamant about removing the trustees who opposed Sutton, which includes Granda, Cervantes and Solis, as well as Ruben Coronado and Rama Dawar, who are up for re-election in November.
Granda, Coronado, Rama and Richard Atkins ran for the school board in 2014 under the banner of the "Four Horsemen," a group of outsiders intent on improving the district. Their campaign was managed by Richard Martinez, who ran against Cox and is now leading the recall against her. (Atkins now opposes what the other three are trying to do).
On Friday, a flier circulating on social media encouraged a recall of teachers union president Judee Gonzalez Martinez as well.
Rodrigues, a Central High graduate and mother of four Central Unified students, said she's fighting to save Sutton's job because of the growth she saw in the district since he took the job in 2015.
"It was a breath of fresh air to have Mark as superintendent," Rodrigues said. "The interaction was not something we had before."
NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Phillip Cervantes voted for the ouster of Mark Sutton.