Riverbank’s school trustee election could shift the board majority

jnsbranti@modbee.comOctober 13, 2013 

— The balance of power may shift on Riverbank’s school board next month as three of the district’s five trustees are elected.

Two current trustees – Egidio “Jeep” Oliveira and Ron Peterson – are not seeking reelection, but their frequent ally Elizabeth Meza is on the ballot.

Trustees John Mitchell and Steve Walker, who recently have been on the short end of controversial split votes, have two years left on their terms. Depending on who gets elected Nov. 5, they may become part of a new board majority.

The financially challenged Riverbank Unified School District has faced serious budget cuts, severe enrollment declines and significant management changes in recent years. It has big bond debts looming, and a predominately low-income student population with lots of educational challenges.

But those pressing issues are not what have made headlines this year. One vote over reducing board member benefits, another about building a science lab, and a third over hiring a football coach are what caused a stir. There also have been allegations about some trustees missing too many meetings.

The biggest flap has been about whether the schools should pay for trustees’ health care. Mitchell and Walker favored keeping their costly district-paid health insurance, but the board majority voted to save money by giving trustees simply a $240-per-month stipend.

That may change depending on who gets elected.

Meza and four challengers are vying for three seats on the five-member board. On the ballot with Meza are Susanne Dean, Patrick Hagan, Charles Neal and Susan Taylor.

The district is down to about 2,700 students, who are spread out over six campuses. The district only serves part of Riverbank because children from many of the city’s newer subdivisions attend the Sylvan Union School District and the Modesto High School District.

Riverbank’s school board members will be elected at large this time, but it’s probably the last time that will happen. That’s because the board plans to switch to area elections, which means future trustees will have to be chosen from five different neighborhoods.

For now, however, all voters will get to pick their three favorite candidates.

The contenders have diverse backgrounds, ranging in age from 36 to 72. Four have children, one doesn’t. Two are retired, three have jobs. And they come from a broad range of occupations, including construction, health care, accounting, corrections and education.

An in-depth questionnaire about personal backgrounds and views on many educational topics was completed by all five candidates, and they can be accessed by clicking on the name of each candidate below.

Here are some highlights about the candidates and some of what they have to say, listed alphabetically.

Suzanne Dean

Dean, 51, is the city of Ceres’ deputy finance director, and she was on Riverbank’s school board a decade ago.

After winning election and serving about seven months in office, Dean said she needed to resign in 2004 to care for her terminally ill mother. This is the second time she has tried to get re-elected to the board since her mother’s passing.

“I am the only candidate with a financial background,” said Dean, whose bachelor’s degree was in accounting. “I believe this education and experience will be a tremendous asset to our district during this time of financial change.”

Her background will enable her “to evaluate complex data and make informed decisions.”

Dean has concerns about Riverbank’s bond debt and operating reserve.

“This district has too much debt and no real reserve. I would grade it as a ‘D,’” said Dean, who is married and has five adult children.

Her top priority as a trustee would be “keeping the board focused on what is best for the students in our district.”

Dean noted: “The approval of team coaches should not be done at the board level. This is an operational function and should be made by staff.”

That indicates she sides with the Meza-Peterson-Oliveira faction of the current board. Mitchell and Walker had opposed hiring a football coach who happened to be Peterson’s son.

Patrick Hagan

Hagan, 45, is a home health care provider who did not indicate that he has any children on his questionnaire. But he said he is running for the school board “to enhance the educational opportunities of every child.”

Hagan, who did not graduate from college, said Riverbank needs to improve its academic standing and provide its staff members “all the available tools necessary to perform their duties to educate the children in a safe and secure environment.”

While Hagan left many parts of The Bee’s questionnaire blank, he said “the district has been irresponsible in their funding for such projects as the science lab.”

That indicates that he sides with the Mitchell-Walker faction of the current board because they, too, voted against the science lab.

Elizabeth Meza

Meza, 36, is a Stanislaus County probation corrections officer who has been on the board since 2009. She has a husband and two children, and she considers herself to be an “advocate for students and their families.”

“As a parent, I understand the challenges of preparing children and wanting them to be college and career-ready for the current and future workforce,” said Meza, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Meza said her ability to speak English and Spanish allows her “to engage and communicate with parents and families in our community.”

“I am continuously out in the community attending events and meeting families with ideas, questions and concerns,” Meza said. As a trustee, she is committed to making “tough educated decisions that have students’ best interest in mind.”

Meza said there are challenges ahead for Riverbank schools.

“Our long-term debt is a concern,” she acknowledged. “We have two certificates of participation (bonds) that have to be repaid and will impact our general fund beginning in 2015-2016.”

To solve Riverbank’s problems, Meza said, trustees “need to be educated, forward thinkers and professional.” She urged parents and community members to become involved with the schools and aware of their challenges.

“Through engagement and communication,” Meza said, “we can ... create a successful educational environment.”

Charles Neal Sr.

Neal, 72, is a retired heavy construction foreman and former Riverbank City Council member.

“Several citizens approached me about running to have some mature leadership for the board,” Neal said. “Over the last few years, the board has drifted away from their main priority: Educating the students of this district.”

One of Neal’s daughters is a teacher in the district, and he has concerns about how school funds are being spent.

“This school year’s budget has been passed, but I think a new board could at mid-year change some of the priorities to tailor our decisions to best serve the students and families in our district,” Neal said.

That indicates Neal sides with the Mitchell-Walker faction of the current board.

But Neal is no stranger to controversy, having had very public disputes with former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño. In 2010, Madueño accused Neal of harassing and stalking her, and she got a temporary restraining order issued to keep him away from her. A judge later refused to issue a permanent restraining order against Neal.

Neal was on Riverbank’s council from 1980 to 1992, but he has stayed active in city politics. In recent years, he supported former Riverbank councilman Jesse James White, who left office after getting into legal problems.

To improve the city’s public schools, Neal said, the district must communicate better with the community.

“We need to reach out more to families. Bringing more citizens into the decision-making process puts democracy into action,” Neal said. “At the (school board) meetings, you don’t have much citizen involvement because some feel intimidated. They have a person with a stopwatch that times you when you speak. You have three minutes to get your point across.”

Neal said that “when parents and citizens speak up, they should be treated with respect and fairness, not become the object of lectures from elected politicians.” He said he has the “courage, vision and persistence” required to advocate for an opposing view.

“I like to make decisions based on the merits, not the muscle behind them,” Neal said.

Susan Taylor

Taylor, 62, is a retired educator who had been a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent for educational services for the Riverbank district.

“I have the knowledge, experience and capability to be a school board member and see this as an opportunity to give back to the community in which I have lived and worked for the past 25 years,” Taylor said.

One of Taylor’s sons also is a teacher in the district.

“I am eager to be part of a school board that acts responsibly and respectfully, as a team, to ensure the success of our students,” Taylor said. “I plan to be at all board meetings and to come prepared. I will also attend as many school and district functions as possible.”

That indicates she sides with the Meza-Peterson-Oliveira faction of the current board because there’s been controversy over the number of meetings and district activities Mitchell and Walker have missed.

“It is a school board member’s job to set policy, be informed prior to making decisions and to support our schools – not to micro-manage them,” Taylor said. “I would like to see a school board which fully acts as a team to make responsible decisions in the best interest of its students, and which treats staff and each other with respect at all times.”

She said there’s a lot of work ahead to meet the new Common Core curriculum standards and to meet the needs of Riverbank’s low-income students.

“I plan to listen to parents, students and staff as one member of a school board that makes decisions through collaborating and discussing information and issues as a team,” Taylor said. She thinks “interventions should be prioritized for students at risk as early as possible and that the district should continue its effort toward effective instruction for every student, every day.”

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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