JARDINE: Tumult shows on board in Riverbank

June 22, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— Elected officials bickering, missing meetings, voting out of spite.

If this seems familiar in the City of Action, that's because it is. Except this time, it's not the City Council. It doesn't involve anyone named White or Madueño or Holmer. No allegations of voter fraud or harassment. No out-of- control and criminal behavior, as displayed by Councilman Jesse James White, who ultimately pleaded guilty to two felonies and a pair of misdemeanors shortly after completing a tumultuous term in office.

Just more of the same pettiness that seems to dominate the local landscape.

This one involves the Riverbank Unified School District's board of trustees. The story has played out since February during board meetings, through some solid reporting by Ike Dodson of the Riverbank News, and back-and-forth in The Bee's Letters From Our Readers on the Opinions pages.

And nearly five months later, it's still unresolved.

During a meeting Feb. 19, board members John Mitchell and Steven Walker didn't cotton to having their monthly stipend and benefits package reduced even though the board was asking the district's employees to accept rollbacks. Mitchell and Walker asked to be grandfathered in at the previous level.

The other three board members — Elizabeth Meza, Ron Peterson and board President Egidio "Jeep" Oliveira — all voted to limit each board member to a $240-a-month stipend that can be used to buy health insurance through the district. Walker and Mitchell dissented. Mitchell left the meeting after the motion passed.

From the same agenda, the board needed to approve the hiring of various coaches for sports at the high school and elementary school levels. Peterson abstained from voting because his son, Kirk, was among those on the list. Kirk Peterson is a well-regarded assistant football coach who worked with head varsity coach Jim Oliver when both were on staff at Turlock High. Oliver wants to hire him as an assistant at Riverbank High.

With Ron Peterson stepping aside and Mitchell having left the building, it needed to be unanimous among the three remaining voters to pass. Walker voted no.

The board then voted separately on whether to hire Kirk Peterson. Walker voted "no," reportedly later telling Ron Peterson and others within earshot that he voted against Peterson's son because Peterson had voted to reduce the trustees' benefits.

"It was a retaliatory vote," Peterson said. "I told (Walker), 'You have no business being on a school board.' "

Walker last month wrote a letter to The Bee defending his actions and justifying his "no" votes on other issues.

The episode upset Oliver to the point where he's considered stepping down as head football coach.

That, in turn, bothers Jenni Avila, who served with Mitchell on Riverbank's school board in the 1990s. She attended last week's meeting and spoke up in hopes of reaching Mitchell and Walker. She said she knows, respects and likes both of them. Likewise, she's known Oliver for years and said the school would endure a great loss if he quits.

But neither Walker nor Mitchell attended the meeting to hear what she or several other speakers, including three students, had to say.

Avila said she understands the trustees' disappointment over the reduced stipends. Being a board member, she said, requires much time, effort and thick skin.

"But to get mad and turn someone down … ?" she said.

So where do they go from here? Oliver is optimistic Peterson will join his staff when practice begins in August. But it might take a change in standard operating procedure for that to happen.

Oliveira, the board president, wants to give Walker and Mitchell the opportunity to reconsider when they next meet Aug. 6. In the meantime, he's trying to determine whether policy can be changed for new hires just as they changed the policy for returning coaches several years ago. In essence, that responsibility would fall upon the school administrators rather than a board vote.

"We need to do the business of running our schools without personal conflict," Oliveira said.

"I can vote on that," Ron Peterson said.

Which, in its own right, speaks volumes: a bickering board that might have to pass a rule limiting its own power, simply to get something done.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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