CALEXICO — Walking into most Calexico Unified School District meetings these days, the tension is palpable.
Frustrated parents, teachers, students, community members, school district members, officials and staff often find themselves in heated conversations in and out of meetings, oftentimes with sides accusing the other of the same things and everyone claiming they are the ones putting education first.
And in the end, everyone’s left with residue of anger, distrust and frustration.
Protests, emotions, accusations and, at times, police presence have become part of board meetings as the district and the community try to come back from a difficult past and move forward.
“The bottom line is that it’s not good. It’s not good, that animosity, and you feel it every time in the meetings, and it keeps ratcheting up, and I don’t know when it’s going to stop,” Calexico Unified board member Norma Aguilar said.
The district has three employee groups, and Associated Calexico Teachers is the remaining group with which to settle negotiations.
“Anytime there’s difficult negotiations, there’s always a certain amount of resentment and sometimes misunderstanding of what really is going on,” Calexico Unified Superintendent Richard Fragale said. “Obviously there is tension, and until the contract is resolved, then there’s going to be that tension.”
ACT president Enrique Cervantes said he feels that it’s unnecessary since he suspects the district knew all along it could correct its cash flow problem and avoid a state takeover.
“They built up these tensions in the meantime between the employee and employer. Our trust factor has dwindled down to zero. We don’t trust anything that comes out of their mouth now,” he explained. “It’s sad, because with Fragale coming in, we were starting to establish a trust relationship.”
Since no agreement has been made between the district and ACT, they are now in fact-finding, a negotiation process that isn’t anticipated to last longer than through April.
“Hopefully we’ll have resolution by end of April and hopefully that will reduce the tension,” Fragale said.
Calexico Unified board President Ruth Duarte said she believes that this round of negotiations is more difficult than previous ones since most past cuts have been reinstated so “in a sense savings have never been there.”
Once the district is solvent, it can then start thinking about reinstating cuts, she added.
“If it wasn’t because of negotiations would this be going on? I don’t think it would, because we never heard it before negotiations,” she said. “The decisions are difficult, but this is the first time Calexico is doing what it should have been doing eight years ago.”
Distrust on both sides
Each side believes the other twists numbers and the truth.
“They (district officials) only choose certain things to send out to the community, and it’s very misleading because someone may look at this and think they (teachers) have all the benefits and salary from the districts,” Cervantes said. “I call that not being factual.”
Calexico Unified board member Joong Kim questions district budget information, too.
“The information is not full information but one side only, and some numbers are not corrected or presented at the board meeting,” he said. “The board members, they don’t want to see the numbers. The board members supposedly check how our budget goes and that’s where the real problem is; we have mismanagement.”
Kim cited several specific issues he disagreed with such as money spent on travel, lawyers and consulting, calculations of budget percentages, and more. He supports a state takeover.
“For years we’ve been mismanaging the problem. Why does the school district not want the state to take over? Because they would lose their jobs, the lawyer and consulting (would be) the first to go,” he said.
“People have been picketing about what they need, and the board doesn’t listen to them. I believe talking time is done, it’s action time. Let the state takeover and recall the board members. I don’t care if they recall me.”
Aguilar said she believes the district needs to improve its communication with the community.
“We need to do a much better job and get out information. All we do is end up playing catch up,” she said. “They are getting their numbers from the district, but they’re putting them out of context. Well, show me where we’re hiding the money. If we have money, wouldn’t we be using it?”
Aguilar added that she doesn’t appreciate open mocking of board members, laughing, inattention and other behavior by some at meetings.
“There’s no need to be derogatory when you express your concern. I don’t think I’ve ever treated anybody who came to the podium or microphone with disrespect and that’s sad. I don’t expect or demand that someone respect me, but yes we should respect the process and that applies to board members and audience as well. We’re starting to see a breakdown in decorum and civility.”
Students have become embroiled in the issue, too, with some coming to protests and board meetings speaking in support of their teachers.
“Whatever happens, the students shouldn’t be put in the middle of it,” Fragale said. “There’s students getting up at the board meeting with comments, and it’s obviously coming from somewhere. They obviously wouldn’t know that information unless it was being shared with them.”
In a small community, big issues hit everyone, often on multiple levels with board members sometimes friends or relatives of those pink-slipped.
Everyone agrees that the community and most importantly, the students are being negatively affected with emotions going beyond the board meetings and into the classrooms and homes as teachers worry about their jobs.
“I think we’ll keep moving forward, but it’s not easy when you have people screaming at you and calling you names and questioning your integrity and judgment and everything and not coming to the table with something, acknowledging that there’s a problem,” Aguilar said.
“We didn’t cause this thing, but we are here as elected officials and need to take care of the situation. We’re so busy putting out fires, there’s not enough time left to handle the plans for the future, but what are you going to do? … We can’t do the same thing and have things change. There has to be fundamental changes and compromises on both sides.”
City Councilman Bill Hodge is a teacher in the district and feels the past very much plays into the present.
“That history carries up to today. There is unfortunately a sense of mistrust and that can thwart, hinder any kind of progress. Personally, both sides, I believe, have to overcome their partisan stance and reach across from the table, get the facts and truth on the table to work from there for the benefit for our children,” he said.
“The reason there is so much tension is because, in my personal experience and history here, the stakes have never been any higher. You’re not talking about crunching numbers but people’s livelihoods are being threatened so it may not be right, but civility sort of goes to the side, because there’s a lot of frustration.”
“Why should we have to make that kind of sacrifice when it’s not even our mess, we didn’t create this? I understand as a teacher that we do all have to make sacrifices, but it seems lopsided,” he said. “If there’s going to be cuts, it has to be equitable and has to start from the top. There’s this huge frustration, anxiety and worry and a sort of resentment of why should we further make sacrifices.”
Staff Writer Chelcey Adami can be reached at 760-337-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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