Los Banos

District’s commitment to diversity questioned

An open spot on a personnel commission is generating controversy involving race, fair representation and hiring practices for the Los Banos Unified School District.

The school board will decide Thursday who will be its representative on the personnel commission for classified staff. Its former representative, insurance agent Joe Gutierrez, resigned in December. The board has three candidates from which to choose: former school board member Colleen Menefee, Planning Commissioner Susan Toscano and businessman Art Cantu.

The school board was poised to make a decision on Gutierrez’s replacement at its Jan. 16 meeting, but board members delayed the matter to get more information about the candidates.

A 12-member local civil rights group, the Community Advocacy Coalition, is lobbying for Cantu to be appointed. Gutierrez was the only Hispanic on the three-member commission and, of the three candidates for his seat, Cantu is the one who shares his ethnic background. The coalition was formed in November by Los Banos residents concerned that Hispanics are being underrepresented.

“Is this district making an effort to increase the number of minority administrators and teachers in the district? According to Ed. Code, you are required to make an effort and put in a plan of action of trying to match the employee population with the general demographics of your community,” said Julian Mancias, a spokesman for the Community Advocacy Coalition.

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.

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.

Mancias said he understands the commission has no jurisdiction over teacher hirings, but lack of Hispanic representation is so widespread it is important for the coalition to start somewhere.

“It’s across the board. It just so happens that this was the position that came to our attention,” Mancias said. “The whole city government and school system should equate as reasonably close as possible to our demographics.”

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. LaVerne Forte, the classified union’s representative, is the only person currently on the board. Rick Howard, who was a joint appointment between the union and the school board, saw his three-year term end Dec. 31, although he has reapplied.

Andree Soares, the school board president, said she believes diversity can be achieved without specifically having an Hispanic on the personnel commission. She said she also believes the Los Banos Unified School District does strive for diversity.

“I think looking out at the audience (at January’s school board meeting) we represent minorities well,” Soares said.

She also supports the goal of achieving diversity, but does not believe students are suffering because the district does not have more Hispanic teachers.

School board member Tommy Jones disagrees. Jones said Los Banos Unified’s lack of diversity hurts every student. “It not only hurts minority kids, it hurts white kids,” he said. “We are probably the worst school district in the complete nation as far as diversity.”

Jones said having role models of all ethnicities is important. “My strong feeling is I want all kids to see faces of teachers that look like them. When we see anybody that looks like us, it causes us to dream, to say I could do that too,” Jones said.

Mancias said if Cantu is not appointed to the personnel commission on Thursday, his group will ask for an explanation and an outline of how the district plans to achieve diversity. He said his group bears no ill will toward candidates Menefee or Toscano.