Connie Gilbert, 46, will join the Riverbank Unified School District board, filling the seat vacated by Steve Walker. Longtime trustee John Mitchell has also resigned, effective Feb. 28.
Reached Friday, Mitchell said the illnesses and deaths of his wife and father, as well as abuse he took after voting against hiring a coach, took their toll. “I was verbally assaulted, and I didn’t have enough energy to even debate it,” he said. “I couldn’t recover from that.” After 18 years on the board, he said, “It was just time to say goodbye, good luck, and keep on going. But it’s hard for me to do that.”
Mitchell’s seat, too, will be filled by appointment, said Riverbank Superintendent Daryl Camp. “The tentative plans are to accept applications through March 7 and to interview applicants at a special board meeting on March 18,” he said.
Board members voted 3-0 Tuesday, with Mitchell absent, to appoint Gilbert. She works for the Amazon.com fulfillment center in Tracy and lives in northeast Modesto, within school district boundaries. She will finish the term of Walker, who resigned effective Dec. 31. The seat comes up for election in 2015.
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The new trustee has children at Cardozo Middle School and Riverbank High, and an RHS graduate now attending the University of California, Berkeley, she said Thursday. She planned to run for the board in the 2012 election, Gilbert said, but deaths in her extended family curbed those plans.
“I’m bilingual, so I’d like to reach out to those individuals who don’t speak English and see what we can do to bring the community together,” Gilbert said. She is the youngest of eight children, and the first in her family to attend college.
“It’s very important to me that, regardless of your ethnicity or what you think is unattainable, with hard work and dedication, it could be attainable,” she said.
A school volunteer, Gilbert said she helped in the classroom and with sports fundraising, and set up a Riverbank High memorial scholarship fund in her mother-in-law’s name.
Two others also applied for the board vacancy: Florin Sada and Ana Vigil.
Trustee Suzanne Dean said Gilbert’s volunteer work on the Cardozo School Site Council, classroom work, and attendance at budget input meetings impressed her. “She was really well-informed and she’s already participating,” Dean said.
“We had three strong candidates, so it was tough to select,” board member Susan Taylor said. “She served on the District Advisory Committee, and I felt that was a good steppingstone to serving on the school board.”
“She is an involved parent. She is bilingual, speaking fluent Spanish, and currently has two students within the district. She is educated and the first of her family to attend a four-year university,” board President Elizabeth Meza said by email, calling Gilbert “an exceptional asset” to the board.
Mitchell, first elected in 1995 to the Riverbank Elementary board, helped move the district through unification after breaking away from Oakdale Unified in 1997. Mitchell said he got a view of Sacramento politics in the process, but felt strongly that Riverbank needed its own high school. “That was a very cool thing,” he said.
His tenure on the board stretched from the 1997 implementation of the first California instructional standards, the ones now being replaced by Common Core. “It was a great big thing. The teachers worked so hard, and we tried to give them everything they needed,” he recalled.
Over the years, board emphasis on students and teachers has ebbed, he said. “Even though it’s a business, students and teachers come first, and I think we’ve lost that,” Mitchell said. He sees the passion to educate being worn down, he said. “I think people are losing the drive. The fire’s out. Everyone’s afraid to be taken to court – but that’s how we get some things done sometimes,” he said.
Mitchell’s current term began in 2011, when Walker joined the board. The two often voted as a bloc over the past year, on the losing side of votes to reduce health care benefits for board members in June and by-area elections in March.
Also in March, with a member absent, the two held up a normally routine midyear budget update required by the state. The unexpected delay prompted an emergency Saturday meeting to approve the report and allow the district to continue issuing paychecks. At the time, Walker said he voted against the update because the district was spending too much.