WHITTIER — The Los Nietos School District board voted 3 to 2 Tuesday night to tentatively demote two popular principals and an instructional service director because the district is under investigation for an alleged civil rights violation. The move triggered three hours of stormy debate marked by yelling and bickering.
Board President Adeline Rocha said the board took the action to show the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education that it is ready to remove administrators from their positions if the district has violated the law.
But educators and parents said the board's action was prompted by personality conflicts between board members and administrators and had nothing to do with the civil rights complaint alleging that the district does not provide proper bilingual education.
"The idea of trying to tie the two together is inappropriate," Supt. Terry Giboney said. "We don't even know what the (civil rights) complaint is right now. There are no substantive reasons (for the board's action). Obviously the parents feel the administrators are doing an exemplary job and I agree with that."
Sources, who requested anonymity, said the conflict exemplifies a power struggle between Giboney and several board members. The two principals, Pete Nichols of Nelson School and Mercedes Parks of Aeolian School, and Bill Brown, the director of instructional services, are caught in the middle because they are loyal to the superintendent, sources said.
Giboney said he has been told that the board wants to buy out his contract.
Rocha said the board will vote again on the issue before the administrators are reassigned. She said the action Tuesday night was taken to comply with a state code that requires districts to inform administrators by March 15 if they might be replaced the following school year. If the administrators--all tenured teachers--are removed from their positions, they most likely will return to the classroom.
Nichols said he has had heated run-ins with board members and was told that they were "keeping an eye" on him.
"There is no sound educational reason at all for this move," Nichols said. "It's based on petty grievances."
Nevertheless, Rocha denied the allegations, saying the board's action was prompted solely by the civil rights investigation. She said board members believe there was a connection between the two schools and the civil rights violations. She did not explain what the connection was.
In December the district learned that it was being investigated for allegedly failing to provide Latino students with a proper bilingual education, something Rocha says may be the fault of the two principals and the director of instructional services.
"More than likely the principals will stay on board," Rocha said. "We did this to show (the civil rights office) we are taking the right direction. We have to protect ourselves."
The board's action was sharply criticized by parents and teachers who jammed into the Aeolian School cafeteria to hear the debate and voice their support for the two principals, whom they described as hard-working and popular with the pupils.
"I'm upset because my little boy was crying, 'Mommy, please don't let them take my principal away,' " Shirley Graves said to the board. "You're going to have a heck of a fight with the parents.
"You have your titles. You have your office. But you don't have our respect, and you won't have my vote or the vote of the other parents."
Rocha tried to appease the crowd of 350--one of the largest to attend a Los Nietos School District meeting recently--by briefly explaining the investigation, but her words were barely audible because of yelling.
"If there's a civil rights violation, it's the board's fault," one angry parent yelled across the cafeteria. "The board sets the policy."
With little other discussion, board members Angelica Johnson, Paul Delgado and Rocha quickly voted in favor of the measure, and Gloria Duran and Sylvia Orona voted against it.
After the vote, the crowd stormed out of the cafeteria chanting: "Recall, recall!"
Outside the meeting, Orona criticized the action of the board members who voted in favor of the issue.
"I don't know the reasoning behind it," Orona said. "I'm convinced that the investigation has nothing to do with it. That has never been brought up as an issue. If there are problems (the Department of Education) will give us time to correct the problems and that will be that. It (the action of the board members) is because of personal problems and it's not right."
The predominantly Latino district, with 2,000 students, includes schools in Whittier, Santa Fe Springs and Pico Rivera. The district has four principals.