School board appoints amid race controversy

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comFebruary 10, 2014 

Weeks of racial tension were downplayed last week as the school board filled an open spot on a personnel commission.

The board voted 4-2 on Feb. 6 to make attorney Art Cantu its representative on the personnel commission for classified staff. School board Trustee Dominic Falasco recused himself because one of the candidates, Planning Commissioner Susan Toscano, is his cousin.

Before the vote, Cantu told board members he had no racial motives for wanting to be on the commission.

“I understand that I serve at the will and pleasure of every one of you. If you guys do vote for me I don’t answer to any other agenda. I answer to the board,” Cantu said.

Filling the position on the commission has been a contentious issue since insurance agent Joe Gutierrez resigned from the panel in December. A 12-member local civil rights group, the Community Advocacy Coalition, lobbied for Gutierrez’s replacement to be Hispanic. The school board initially had three candidates from which to choose: former school board member Colleen Menefee, Toscano and Cantu, who is the only Hispanic among the three. Menefee rescinded her candidacy following the Coalition’s push for a Hispanic.

The population of Los Banos is 68.2 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 17 percent of teachers and two of 10 principals are of Hispanic origin.

However, the commission has no jurisdiction over hiring of teachers and administrators. The classified staff personnel commission is tasked with recruiting, testing, selection and classification of non-teacher positions such as custodians, cafeteria assistants, clerical personnel and substitutes. Julian Mancias, a member of the Community Advocacy Coalition, has said lack of Hispanic representation is so widespread at the district that the commission appointment was a necessary starting point.

The commission consists of one member selected by the classified staff’s union, one by the school board, and one jointly appointed by both parties.

Classified staff union Vice President Kristin Erratchu said her group is comprised of a majority of Hispanics.

“Sixty percent of our members are Hispanic, in case you didn’t know. We’re very proud of all of them,” Erratchu said.

Questions about the merit system, conflict resolution and reasons for wanting the position were asked of Toscano and Cantu during the interview for the commission spot. Trustee Dennis Areias declared that he could not vote for Cantu. Areias read an unsigned letter he received days after meeting Cantu in January. The letter accuses Areias, who is a dairyman, of being prejudice and unintelligent and indicates he will be voted out of office.

“What you said at the board meeting was prejudice and does not surprise me and my friends at all. I have followed items you have said during your time as board member and me and my amigos will be doing everything we can to have you removed from the board. Your time is limited and we can’t wait to get a person with color on the board to get you off,” the letter reads. “Some people have said that you may not run for the board the next election. I hope you do so we can kick your a-- and prove to you how much the community hates you. You need to stick with your cows and leave making educated decisions to educated people.”

Mancias said his group did not write the letter.

Areias said although he cannot prove who authored the letter it bothers him because it references a conversation he had with Cantu the night of the January school board meeting. Areias said he referenced the conversation one other time the same night during closed session.

“That really bothered me,” he said. “In our school district we are not prejudice, we are not racist and we get the best person we can for the job.”

School board President Andree Soares also voted against appointing Cantu.

“I felt more confident in the other candidate based on my knowledge of her history and background,” Soares said. “I fully support his (Cantu’s) role on the personnel commission, but he wasn’t my pick today.”

Toscano said she is not angry about not being chosen for the commission. She said she thought she could help the school district but she understands you cannot get everything you want in life.

Cantu said he’s excited to be on the commission. He said he values the classified staff and does not believe it lacks diversity.

“Our classified employees are the pillars of our school system,” Cantu said. “The numbers are good. There’s plenty of Hispanic representation for classified employees.”

Mancias said the Community Advocacy Coalition plans to help Los Banos improve the educational success of Hispanic students.

“There are other agendas, but the primary focus is to help students succeed in the Los Banos Unified School District,” Mancias said.

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