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Petition to recall Fairfax school board members fails

The effort to recall three board members of the Fairfax School District has fallen short of its goal.

A recall committee has worked since July to gather signatures to recall trustees Palmer Moland, Alma Rios and Jose Luis Tapia. But a district aide who leads the committee, Pamela Padilla, said the group won't be able to gather the required signatures by its deadline on Sunday.

The trio of trustees targeted by the recall effort have formed a majority voting bloc in a series of controversial decisions that have drawn outrage at board meetings, scrutiny from a county grand jury report and an audit from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools’ Fiscal Crisis & Management Analysis Team.

The group had 90 days to gather 1,451 signatures. It was hoping to gather them well ahead of that deadline, which would allow a recall election for all three members to qualify for the Nov. 2 special election ballot.

Padilla estimated the group obtained 600 qualifying signatures. Its goal was always to get well over the necessary number of signatures to ensure that, in case any were thrown out, they would have enough to qualify for an election.

MIXED EMOTIONS

There were mixed emotions on the recall committee about what the petition's failure meant.

Fairfax Junior High teacher Lisa Smith said the recall committee worked block by block through triple-digit summer evenings to get signatures. She said that will pay dividends when the seats of Moland and board President Rios are on the ballot in November 2022.

"We’re not disappointed at all. We accomplished one of our major goals, which was community awareness," said Smith, a clerk on the recall committee. "We were able to communicate with the greater public. They will be voters in the next public cycle."

Smith said she's proud of the work the volunteer group accomplished in the midst of a COVID surge, often on days when the mercury was nearing 110 degrees. Padilla said the recall effort was hobbled by relying on such a small group of dedicated volunteers.

TRUSTEES’ REACTIONS

Moland said that during the signature-gathering effort he was able to keep in touch with his constituents through platforms such as social media app NextDoor about the recall.

"My constituents were telling me to stay positive and keep positive," said Moland. "I wasn’t really nervous about it."

Rios had little to say. She said she didn't want to say anything bad about anyone.

"What can I say? I don’t know," she said.

The next step for the recall committee is unclear. Its members are looking to outside agencies such as the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and the Kern County grand jury to act as watchdogs.

COMING ACTIONS

In June, KCSOS announced it would be conducting a financial audit of the district.

The grand jury released a report in May saying the Fairfax School District was governed by "a school board in crisis."

The report outlined a series of recommendations with hard deadlines, such as verifying the residences of board members and passing the censure resolution that accuses Moland of creating a hostile work environment for district employees — an accusation he flatly denies.

Fairfax's newly hired superintendent, Regina Green, said the district has responded to the grand jury and is continuing to respond to its recommendations.

The censure resolution has repeatedly failed, with Rios and Tapia voting it down. At the last board meeting, Green presented a modified version of the censure resolution without a clause that asked the board to "reevaluate Trustee Moland’s conduct and commitment to honest and effective governance at a public meeting" following a governance training program.

Trustee Victoria Coronel asked that the clause be reinstated and that the board provide a rubric for evaluating Moland. Green noted she had removed the clause because it didn't contain a rubric.

SPENDING CONCERNS

Smith said what concerns her most are the board's decisions on legal spending. She said the board has noted its legal spending more than quadrupled last year, but that it has not justified that spending.

"Fourteen more months of this fiscal responsibility by Rios, Tapia and Moland will redefine how this district operates," she said. "We’re not going to be that school that will deliver to a marginalized population any more."

At its Sept. 14 meeting, Rios, Tapia and Moland blocked a proposal by Green to reinstate Schools Legal Services, the district's longtime legal counsel, for non-board matters. The district owes the firm a retainer for the 2021-22 year, but the board majority has repeatedly signaled it has no intention of using its services.

Moland said he never voted for some of the services used, such as the firm hired to investigate him, which ultimately helped pen the censure resolution.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.