ATWATER - School board trustees voted 3-2 Tuesday night to reinstate school Superintendent Melinda Hennes, but the ousted leader said later she needs to consult her attorney and board members before deciding whether to return.
In a brief closed executive session, Trustee John Hall voted with board members Kelly Fincher and Dale Wilson to reinstate Hennes, who was the Atwater Elementary School District superintendent for seven years before her May 8 firing.
Hall then resigned and was not seen during the 45-minute public session.
Several 2-2 votes followed the initial announcement. The board deadlocked on setting a recall election date for Trustee Sheila Whitley and removing Lena Mendoza as board president. Hall, Mendoza and Whitley initially voted two months ago to fire Hennes.
Hennes' husband, Richard, superintendent of the River Delta Unified School District in Rio Vista, told the packed board room his wife should not come back to a hostile work environment.
Hennes, reached by telephone following the meeting, said she needs to speak to the board and her legal counsel before making a decision. She said she was surprised with the board's 2-2 votes.
"I need to talk to my attorney to review the ground rules for operating in the future before making a commitment," Hennes said.
Fincher angrily addressed Mendoza, board president for 2½ years.
"Shame on you for not listening to the people," Fincher said. "Please stop and resign. The people have spoken. It's time to put the pride in your heart aside."
Mendoza countered, saying she feels like she hasn't done anything wrong.
Fincher's motion to remove Mendoza as president, seconded by Wilson, failed on a 2-2 vote, with Mendoza and Whitley dissenting. Another Fincher motion to set an Oct. 16 date for the Whitley recall election failed by the same 2-2 vote. The recall election window is estimated between Oct. 9 and Nov. 14.
The board deadlock means Kent Christensen, Merced County registrar of voters, will set the recall date. Assistant Superintendent David Duran estimated the recall election will cost between $18,000 and $20,000.
"I admire both Dale Wilson and Kelly Fincher for their courage to stand up for what they believe is right for our children," Hennes said.
"I am honored to be given the opportunity to consider returning to service. I gratefully admire the many community members who clarified for others that the Atwater Elementary School District must continue to operate in a manner that characterizes the Atwater tradition of excellence."
Fincher told Rick Hennes she would watch out for his wife.
"I promise if I have to be here every day, I will protect her if she wants to come back," Fincher said. "I don't think anybody would come back to this."
Wilson said all board members would be watched closely, admonishing Mendoza that she and the district could be held liable for harassment.
Former board member Barbara Dutra extolled Mendoza and Whitley to resign.
"We need to get peace back on the board," Dutra said. "You have a lot of good heart, but it's time for you two to resign."
Mendoza, in a statement to the Sun-Star, said, "As president, I will work together with her and the board to do whatever needs to be done to keep the district moving forward, and achieving the goals and objectives we set to best serve our students, staff and our community."
Former trustee Kory Billings said a petition is being circulated asking Mendoza to step down as board president and will be presented at the next meeting.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com