Recent meetings of the Los Banos Unified School District board have been characterized by nasty exchanges and even name-calling between trustees and, board members admit, it’s a problem.
Trustee Marlene Smith erupted at the July 26 meeting over the unrest on the board. She accused trustees Dennis Areias and Tommy Jones of having “testosterone issues” and described the board as “a bunch of mess” and “a big pot of crap.”
Smith said the board is “disjointed” and hasn’t done anything for the kids in the school district.
“We do have a divided board,” trustee Carol Duffy said. “But there are deep-seated things that have happened between some of the board members. I think it’s hard to get over.”
The board appears divided into two camps, with trustees Duffy, Smith, Jones and Dominic Falasco frequently voting in one camp and holding majority power over Areias, John Mueller and Anthony Parreira. The board’s votes have been divided – and heated – on construction-related matters, with bitter exchanges between Jones and Areias dominating the debate.
The latest split was sparked last month over the hiring of Greg Opinski Construction as construction manager for the Mercey Springs Elementary School addition, a project with a rough estimate of $6 million to $7 million.
The board majority bloc has said the construction manager’s contract allows the school district to have more control and transparency.
The minority bloc voted against the contract, citing past legal issues with Opinski, financial terms of the contract and a preference for other methods of construction they say may result in more savings for the district.
The troubles have community leaders concerned.
“It doesn’t seem like the school board is very productive right now,” said Los Banos Chamber of Commerce Director Bertha Faria. “The school district is a member of our chamber. And if I’m understanding what I’m reading, it doesn’t appear to be supportive of the student body right now.”
Police Chief Gary Brizzee said he is concerned because he has two children in the district, adding that it has been tough to see the school district of his hometown going through such struggles.
Merced County Supervisor Jerry O’Banion, who represents the Los Banos area, said he didn’t want to comment specifically on the issues, but said the trustees need to deal with problems as a group.
When asked about the problems, Mayor Mike Villalta issued a terse statement: “I wish them the best. I hope things work out.” He declined to elaborate.
Duffy blamed the fighting and resentment on Jones. Jones brought different views that didn’t mesh with the established board members, Duffy said.
Mueller said the board is “very disjointed,” and that trustees on the board majority are putting personal agendas over what’s best for students.
“The day Tommy Jones got elected to the board, the climate changed instantly,” Mueller said. “The same exact troubles that were happening on the City Council when he was the mayor have followed him onto our board.”
Mueller is facing his own battle against a recall election set for Aug. 23. Opponents cite poor student test scores, and allege that he doesn’t communicate with constituents.
Areias agreed that the board is disjointed. He blamed the issues on Jones and Smith.
He said problems intensified after Smith reached the board two years ago, and the majority “continues to bring up surprises” at meetings and ask questions that can’t be answered at the time.
Areias accused Jones of acting erratically and leaking closed-session information, and described Jones as “cruel and vicious.”
“(Jones) can’t speak the truth and he continues to get away with it,” Areias said.
Jones strongly denied that the problems on the board are because of him and put the blame back on Areias, whom Jones described as a “bully.”
“It’s not with me, Mr. Areias has an attitude,” Jones said. “I like to be respectful, listen to the public. I try to most of the time.”
Jones said he doesn’t like the infighting, including the battles between him and Arieas.
Jones said he is supporting the recall effort against Mueller.
The bitterness on the board comes amid troubling times at the district, which has seen two authority figures – a teacher and a former teacher turned police officer – arrested and charged on accusations of having sexual relationships with Los Banos High School students. Both teachers have pleaded not guilty.
Falasco also has faced high-profile legal troubles after his arrest earlier this year on suspicion of drug possession. He has denied this and said he plans to fight the charges.
Along with the recall campaign, three board members – Jones, Duffy and Falasco – are up for re-election this year.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562