SOUTHEAST AREA — The Montebello Unified School District has begun to recover from a near bankruptcy, which poses a conundrum for voters in the Nov. 2 school board election: Do they blame incumbents Darrell H. Heacock and Paul A. Lopez for the problems or credit them for the turnaround?
The school board races in Montebello, Norwalk-La Mirada and Lynwood are among several local contests that could prove to be referendums on trustees' handling of controversial local issues.
In Montebello, the school system was $14 million in debt three years ago and so close to bankruptcy that officials feared a state takeover. The school board has approved budget cuts of nearly $43 million and cut 435 staff positions, including teachers, school librarians, nurses, counselors, plumbers, mechanics and groundskeepers.
"I think we've done a very good job," said incumbent Lopez, 68, a retired Monterey Park resident who has served on the school board of the Montebello Unified School District since 1989.
"We balanced the budget. We showed people and staff and employees that we're really there for their benefit."
Incumbent Heacock, a board member since 1979, said that during the financial crisis, he never backed away from difficult choices. "Some were right and some were wrong, but they were decisions that had to be made," said the 60-year-old Montebello real estate broker.
Heacock and other district officials said they hope to restore programs and services that once made Montebello Unified the envy of other urban school systems.
A third incumbent, Eleanor K. Chow, will not seek reelection. The top three vote-getters will win seats on the five-member board.
The challengers are Thomas M. Calderon, 39, a self-employed public relations specialist; Hector Armando Chacon, 26, an administrator for a job-training program at Cerritos College; Fe De La Torre, 45, a clerk at the district's adult school in Bell Gardens; Joseph A. Maytorena, 64, a retired teacher and school administrator; Ruben G. Martinez, 44, a manager for the Mobil Oil Corp., and Henry F. (Hank) Ramey Jr., 28, a Cerritos College student studying to be a paralegal.
All are Montebello residents except Ramey, who lives in Bell Gardens, and Chacon, a Commerce resident.
The challengers said community members will not forgive the board for the poor planning and overspending that precipitated the difficulties.
"When you have a surplus of millions of dollars and in a short time you're in debt, somebody was really asleep," Chacon said.
Maytorena concentrated some of his criticism on the budget cuts. "Parents are concerned about the lack of materials in the schools," he said. "They're concerned that they have to pay for buses to athletic activities."
Martinez said a shortage of school supplies, including textbooks, has harmed his daughter's education. "I don't think that's the way you should be teaching students," he said.
Calderon said the financial difficulties have caused district parents to feel powerless, "cut adrift from the process of running the schools." He added that board members had not taken sufficient responsibility for their decisions.
Ramey joined the chorus of critics, adding that he wanted to change a district focus that resulted in Bell Gardens students being cheated of their fair share of district resources.
De La Torre stressed the need to look forward. "I think we should look at the budget, see the money coming into the district and work from there as a team," she said.
The teachers union, traditionally friendly to incumbents, has endorsed challengers Calderon, Chacon and De La Torre.
In the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, parents and community members have stormed the board room over issues ranging from the opening of six new middle schools to renting school playing fields for adult soccer leagues.
Candidates have also had to fend off personal attacks.
The incumbents fighting for four seats on the seven-member board are Jesse M. Luera, 61, owner of a dry-cleaning business; Lupe Flores-McClintock, 37, a bilingual student evaluator at La Habra High School, and Armando Moreno Jr., 52, an employment counselor for a nonprofit foundation. Incumbent William White will retire.
Luera must fend off bad publicity over being fired May 5 as Norwalk's director of social services, a post he held for nearly 20 years. City officials would not say why Luera was fired.
His removal came after a city investigation into complaints by at least two city employees that Luera sexually harassed them. On Sept. 30, these workers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Luera in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Luera has denied any wrongdoing, but declined to discuss specifics pending the outcome of an administrative hearing to dispute allegations leading to his dismissal. The hearing will take place after the election, said Luera's attorney, Augustin R. Jimenez.