PICO RIVERA — One school board member will have no say when the El Rancho Unified School District votes Tuesday on $3.44 million in cuts that could result in dozens of layoffs and slashed programs and services.
Cecilia Chavez will not vote because she is also a district employee, one of a handful of board members across the state who work for their districts.
Because she takes home about $604 a month for working 15 hours a week as a media aide, she must be silent on a $34-million budget, employee salaries and possibly other issues to avoid a conflict of interest, according to district legal advisers and officials with the California School Boards Assn.
Chavez said the restrictions do not make her an ineffective board member because she can deliberate on matters ranging from bond issues to curriculum. Being an employee gives her a valuable perspective, said Chavez, who manages book orders, book deliveries and projection equipment at South Ranchito Elementary School in Pico Rivera.
"I can see the needs, the things that students really need," she said.
Chavez sent three sons through the school system and has a granddaughter attending South Ranchito. She has worked in the district for 17 years and volunteered before that.
Colleagues say the 57-year-old Chavez is the kind of worker who puts in far more hours a week than she is paid for. They said the district would not be able to function effectively without such helpers.
Employee representatives said they would like Chavez to be able to participate in some of the most crucial decisions facing the district. The unions for teachers and for non-teaching employees endorsed Chavez's bid for office without realizing that her powers would be curtailed.
"It's very disappointing," said Marcia Hall, president of the El Rancho Federation of Teachers. "We thought there was going to be no conflict of interest and that she would be able to vote on budget items."
Chavez is among a handful of school board members statewide who are also employees of the districts they serve. The other districts include Lemoore Union Elementary School District in Kings County, where custodian Charlie Hendrix serves as trustee. The five-member board of the Arcohe Union Elementary District in Sacramento County includes teacher Casey Vandenburg and substitute teacher Nancy Bauer.
The conflict-of-interest debate first drew widespread attention, however, with the case of teacher Caroline Botwin, who won a board seat in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in 1990.
Traditionally, employees resigned from school district positions when elected to a board, said Brian Lewis, an administrator with the California School Boards Assn.
But Botwin refused, and the school district challenged her in court. The case has yet to be settled, Lewis said, but the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the dual role of employee/board member. The only exceptions are board members elected before January. These trustees must choose one role or the other when they are up for reelection.
Lewis said being a trustee and an employee "is an inherent, pervasive conflict of interest. . . . It's not just a fiscal issue. It's a whole rainbow of issues."
He said it is a problem for a district employee to vote on any expenditure because that money could directly or indirectly affect the employee. Board members are also responsible for employee evaluations, making Chavez and other employee-trustees responsible for evaluating their own supervisors. Board members are also privy to confidential information that employees are not normally allowed to see.
"It is such a pervasive conflict of interest that you deny the community a full and impartial board of trustees," Lewis said. "The law should be as such to even avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest."
Lewis said the issue has not been settled with the new law. Board members frequently have spouses and children working in the same district, creating similar appearances of conflict.
The nearby Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, for example, is embroiled over trustee recall petitions prompted in part by a conflict-of-interest issue. Some employees and parents complained about the board's decision last year to hire the son of new Trustee Mary Lou Gomez as a security guard. Although she did not have to, Gomez resigned her own district job as a preschool teacher to avoid the most direct conflict of interest.
Two other trustees on the seven-member Norwalk-La Mirada board have close relatives working in the district. Union leaders have questioned whether the three board members should be allowed to deliberate and vote on budget and salary issues.
The question is particularly vital as school systems face some of the largest funding cutbacks in years. Jobs and programs are directly affected, and charges of favoritism have surfaced even in districts where no board members or their relatives are employed.
Chavez said she is sensitive to the charges of favoritism and would not influence any decision affecting her own job security. She is even considering stepping aside voluntarily. "I may give up the job next year if I see that the money is not there for some of the things that we need at school," she said.
"I'll step out--as long as I can come back as a volunteer worker when that point comes."