Retired educator Frank Serrano won election to the school board of the Montebello Unified School District Tuesday, capping a successful campaign as a board antagonist in a district suffering severe financial troubles.
Serrano, who was not endorsed by any major district organization, received just over 50% of the vote to defeat Barbara Chavira, a district parent and part-time quality-control inspector, and businessman Joe Aguilar Urquidi. Chavira received about 44% of the votes, while Urquidi finished a distant third, with about 5% of the vote.
Chavira had the support of the Montebello Teachers Assn., the Assn. of Montebello School Administrators and the California School Employees Assn.--which represents non-teachers. Serrano portrayed her as an establishment candidate whose election would not result in real change.
"People are disenchanted with those people who have been running the district for years and years," Serrano said. "For the first time in a long time, a candidate like myself beat the bureaucracy of the school board."
He said his election was a signal that district voters are disgusted with the way board members and administrators have managed the school system.
A state controller's report last month listed the district's financial condition as among the worst in the state. To balance its books, the board has approved $19 million in cuts, including layoffs of about 200 employees, most of them teachers. District class size will soar and the district will lose all of its elementary school librarians and 20% of its nurses. The district is selling about $7.5 million in bonds to meet its June payroll.
District officials have said that Montebello's problems are a result of state budget cuts and their efforts to improve programs and pay the salaries needed to attract top-notch educators.
Tuesday's special election was held to fill a vacancy created when Arthur Chavez resigned last October and moved out of the state. About 9% of the registered voters cast ballots.
The board initially appointed Chavira to serve out Chavez's four-year term, which expires in December. But Serrano and other community members led a successful petition drive that forced Chavira to vacate her board seat in January and stand for election after serving less than a month. Serrano's supporters included the Hispanic Coalition, an activist group that raises scholarship money for Latino students, and Montebello City Councilman Edward C. Pizzorno, who said the school board needed an outsider and more diversity of thought.
Serrano predicted that his victory "will change the process of running for office as a school board member. It will not be handed down from a friend to a friend anymore."
He said Chavira's qualifications as a district parent were no match for his 33 years of experience as a teacher, principal and consultant in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Chavira said Serrano belittled her extensive experience on parent advisory committees. She also defended her working relationship with board members, saying that little could be accomplished without achieving a consensus.
"Mr. Serrano wanted to give voters the perception that I was a mom who stayed home and made cookies for her kids, and that a parent isn't qualified enough to work on a school board," Chavira said.
"I still believe that the parents who are active and concerned with their district are the ones who should be determining the children's future. It's very frightening to believe we don't have a voice once again," she said.
The Montebello district has 33,000 students and serves all of Montebello, Bell Gardens and Commerce and parts of East Los Angeles, Rosemead, South San Gabriel, Pico Rivera and Monterey Park.
Serrano and his supporters gathered in a Montebello restaurant to await election returns. About 12:30 Wednesday morning, when the results became clear, more than 50 well-wishers popped balloons and chanted, "We did it!" and "We want Frank!"
"This is the kind of person who can do something," parent Marlinda Glasman said. "He wasn't in anyone's pocket."
Serrano said he will immediately try to influence decisions affecting next year's budget. He said he will urge other board members to restore the district's bilingual-education coordinator and rehire bilingual teachers who have been laid off. Lower-priority items could be trimmed instead, he said.
Chavira said she doubted how effective Serrano could be, given his open antagonism toward other board members and some district administrators.
Serrano disagreed. "I think I'll be able to work with them very well," he said. "As long as we're talking about honesty and doing things for the good of the kids, and not protecting friends, we're going to get along fine."
Community correspondent Mary Becker contributed to this story.*MONTEBELLO Montebello Unified School District Board of Trustees (one seat) 38 of 38 precincts
CANDIDATE VOTE % Frank M. Serrano 2,041 50.44 Barbara L. Chavira 1,785 44.10 Joe Aguilar Urquidi 220 5.43