New Los Banos school board shoots down controversial agreement; ousted trustees claim violations

Amid shouting and finger-pointing, members of the Los Banos school board welcomed two new trustees whose arrival shifted the balance of power and led to the rejection of a proposed investigation into undefined allegations of wrongdoing by district officials.

Before the Wednesday evening meeting, called by trustee Marlene Smith one day before the board’s regularly scheduled session Thursday, the board swore in Marg Benton and Megan Goin-Soares, two of three new board members who won seats in the Nov. 8 election. The third new trustee, Gary Munoz, did not attend and was expected to be sworn in at the regular meeting Thursday night.

The seating of Benton and Goin-Soares displaced Tommy Jones and Carole Duffy and weakened an alliance that for more than a year has clashed with others on the seven-member school board.

Jones and Duffy – who routinely aligned with Smith, fellow trustee Ray Martinez, and with a local organization known as the Community Advocacy Coalition – stood to the side of the packed conference room after being formally replaced. Many in the audience applauded as Benton and Goin-Soares claimed their seats.

The special meeting was called to discuss one item – a proposal to hire a Santa Maria firm, Burgess Consulting, to investigate emails and other electronic documents of six unnamed school officials, probing for any wrongdoing relating to a controversial “lease-leaseback method” for the construction of Creekside Junior High School and other buildings.

The proposal, which has been pushed by the trustees aligned with the CAC, had been rejected during a Nov. 10 meeting. Its supporters have not clearly explained who would be investigated or what they suspect would be found.

Noting that Smith called the meeting one day before Jones and Duffy were to lose their seats, board President Anthony Parreira said the timing of the request was suspicious. “It kind of makes you wonder if they are trying to pull a fast one,” he said.

Without any debate Wednesday, the board voted 5-2 to reject the proposed agenda for the special meeting, effectively ending the session.

Trustee Dominic Falasco, who lost his seat to Munoz by just three votes, was among the trustees who voted to reject the agenda. Parreira said he had informed Munoz that he’d be sworn in if he attended Wednesday’s session, but did not hear back from him.

Munoz was supported by the CAC. But, even if he had been present to vote with Smith and Martinez, it would not have changed the outcome since Parreira, Benton, Goin-Soares and trustee Dennis Areias had the majority.

Goin-Soares said she opposed the agenda because she does not see the proposed investigation as a priority.

“I don’t think it’s worthwhile to approve something that doesn’t directly benefit the children,” she said.

The shake-up of the Los Banos school board dramatically alters a body that for the past year has been stymied by in-fighting; disputes over contracts; a grand jury report that says the district ignored protocol by locating a new middle school near the airport; allegations of racism; the recall of one trustee; the drug arrest of another; sex-abuse allegations against a teacher and a former teacher; and felony allegations that Jones paid bribes to secure a valuable construction deal for Merced contractor Greg Opinski, who is a member of the Merced Union High School District and a one-time candidate for state Assembly.

At the same time, the majority of the district’s students are failing to meet state performance norms, with only 32 percent of students performing at grade level in reading and 22 percent in math compared to California averages of 49 percent and 37 percent, respectively; the growing student population of more than 10,000 has exceeded classroom capacity; and, according to a federal civil rights report, more than a quarter of Los Banos students are chronically absent, the worst rate in Merced County.

In asking the board to approve spending district money to hire Burgess for a vague investigation into wrongdoing, Parreira and others have suggested, Jones intended to use district funds to gather information he would use to defend himself against the criminal corruption charges. Jones has not responded to that allegation.

Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little, told the Enterprise in an email that the investigation has merit on its own.

“I understand that Mr. Parreira asked Mr. (Steven) Burgess why the district should pay for something which could show the district acted wrongly – that is the real issue,” Little wrote. “Public officials have a duty to uncover wrongdoing if they suspect it or learn of it – it is part of the oath they take. Unfortunately, nothing is being done to determine whether the district acted improperly. To the contrary, every effort has been made so far to avoid any audit or examination of the district’s emails.”

At the close of Wednesday’s meeting, Duffy and Jones approached Areias and Parreira, with Jones contentiously addressing Areias before both ousted trustees turned around and Duffy read a written statement.

“I wish to file a complaint on behalf of Tommy Jones and myself — and I’m Carole Duffy,” Duffy said. “This is a blatant violation of the posting and the notice requirements of the Brown Act, and is intended to block the audit of the computers that would probably expose misconduct and corruption.”

As she ended the statement, Jones said to Duffy, “OK, that’s good enough.”

Areias and Jones then got into a shouting match that ended with Jones accusing Areias of taking money from the district, an allegation Areias brushed off, laughing.

Neither Duffy nor Jones explained why they thought the meeting violated notice requirements of the Brown Act, a set of California open-meeting laws for public governing boards.

Parreira shot down the notion that it did.

“There is no basis in (Duffy’s claims),” Parreira said. “Everything was posted according to the law and met all the requirements.”

Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562