Grand jury blasts San Jose's Luther Burbank school board
By Sharon Noguchi
With seven years of climbing test scores, wild success in teaching reading and a record of lifting the most struggling students, Luther Burbank School District has been hailed as a model for educating poor and immigrant children.
Now the tiny San Jose district is getting noticed for something that could threaten that progress: a grand jury report that blasts Luther Burbank for a crisis of leadership and an intimidating board that may have run afoul of the law.
In a scathing report, the Santa Clara County civil grand jury awarded the five-member Luther Burbank board an F for mishandling its duties, among them firing a popular superintendent and hastily hiring a replacement without vetting.
The jury singled out board President Antonio Perez for creating a "hostile, authoritarian environment characterized by disrespect, intimidation and the appearance of retaliation." It suggested he step down as president.
The report concluded gloomily that the one-school district, which serves primarily low-income immigrant families in San Jose's central Burbank district, may not be able to change the board's systemic problems. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office is looking into the findings, spokeswoman Amy Cornell said, and Santa Clara County Schools Deputy Superintendent Cary Dritz is naming a committee to review and respond to the report.
The Luther Burbank school board is scheduled Tuesday to discuss the grand jury's 33-page
report, which has done little to change the tenor at the school: Two secretaries have taken stress leaves, a principal and five teachers have complained of harassment and parents say they are terrified to speak out.
"I'm afraid of what might happen to my children," said Maria Uribe, mother of three. Even though her youngest just finished eighth grade and will move on to high school in a different district next year, she said she and other parents fear unspecified retaliation.
Since the report's publication in June, Perez has been a frequent visitor to Luther Burbank's only school, strolling on the playground, walking into rooms or sitting in the school office.
A parent who works as a school crossing guard said Perez reported her to her boss for allegedly talking with parents about the grand jury report while on duty.
Perez said he visits school because his son is in kindergarten there. "One thing I did notice is a lot of employees expressing their First Amendment rights during working hours. I'm sure there (are) a few laws against political activities using public resources," he wrote in an e-mail to the Mercury News.
The grand jury report, culminating a yearlong investigation by the civilian watchdog, alleged multiple failures, among them:
# The board summarily fired Superintendent Richard Rodriguez and on the same evening hired an interim superintendent without proper notice or vetting.
# Perez appears to be intimidating employees who supported the former superintendent and who were summoned to speak to the grand jury.
# Layoffs and demotions, while budget related, seemed to single out those considered hostile to Perez and the new administration.
# In a potential conflict of interest, Perez voted to award district contracts to a company that his woodworking company does business with.
# The district has violated open-meetings and public-notification laws.
In a lengthy interview with the Mercury News, Perez, in his seventh year on the board and third as president, said the jury was brainwashed by Rodriguez, whom the board ousted in November. Perez said he had to bring in a new administration to clean up a fiscal mess in the district office.
Rodriguez said he left the district with a $2 million surplus. He's distressed at recent events and says the board lacks ability and "has no business whatsoever overseeing a school district."