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Three Fairfax School Board members, including board president, served recall notices

20210507-bc-recall

Maria Hernandez serves a recall notice to Jose Luis Tapia, Fairfax Elementary School board member, on Tuesday, May 4.

Three Fairfax School District board members, including board president Palmer Moland, were served recall notices during Tuesday night's board meeting.

Fellow trustees Alma Rios and Jose Luis Tapia, who elevated Moland to board president in December and often form a majority voting bloc, were also served recall notices.

Many of the trio's decisions and the way they have made them have drawn the ire of the district's classified staff, teachers, parents, union representatives and other community members. They have repeatedly voiced their opposition to the trustees, asked for them to resign, protested, put up signs in their community and threatened to recall them. Tuesday's meeting was the latest chapter in this ongoing saga.

The recall notice came during public comment and previous board president Javier Moreno announced the effort. The audience in the Fairfax Junior High Cafeteria broke out into applause and cheers, as longtime parent volunteer and community member Maria Hernandez delivered manila envelopes to each of the board members.

"This evening I am informing you that we have had enough," Moreno said. "We are taking back our schools tonight."

Moreno said Fairfax made great strides and evolved as a district over the 20 years that he was a board member. 

"In a matter of four months, this board has eroded the progress made all because of poor leadership, self-interest and vengeful behavior," he said. "Rather than listen to the concerns of the people who voted you in and the suggestions of those in the classroom who are doing the real work, board members Tapia, Moland and Rios continue to ignore the concerns of the community."

Those trustees served with a recall notice will have seven days to respond to the notice. Moreno asked the board members to resign rather than face the recall process.

Like many small districts, Fairfax School District's board is elected by a relatively small number of voters and the margins for winners can be very slim. Tapia won his seat with 925 votes in November, ousting longtime board president Moreno with a lead of just 30 votes. Altogether 5,110 voters turned out to vote for five board candidates running for two seats. 

After the meeting, Rios and Tapia declined to comment. Moland, too, declined to comment specifically on the recall effort, though he said he is working well with new interim superintendent Lora Brown, who has stepped in since Michael Coleman's unexpected retirement last month.

"We are working together really well," he said. "We met for a couple hours and went over the agenda."

It was during that meeting that the board elected in November was seated and that they considered a censure resolution that recommended Moland's resignation. It claimed Moland abused his power as a trustee bullying staff — from classified workers all the way up to the then-superintendent — throughout the district. Moland has denied the claims. The measure failed in a 2-2 vote, with Tapia and Rios casting votes in support of Moland.

Since then, there have been a series of high-profile departures and retirements including that of Coleman, who had been with the district for 16 years, long enough to have hired and care deeply for many of the people who work there now. 

"I love the people of Fairfax," he said. "I would be there if I could."

The month's lone regular meeting on April 8 was canceled because of a lack of quorum. It was the meeting where Coleman was to receive his annual review, a meeting that Coleman said he had prodded Moland, as board president, to oversee. He said Moland had warned him that he might not be able to make this meeting weeks ahead of time, which Coleman found troubling.

Coleman said that Tapia had given plenty of notice that he would not attend because of a medical issue. But Coleman said that Moland called him 20 minutes before the meeting and said that he would not be in attendance. He learned from Rios only five minutes before the meeting that she was in Los Angeles and would not be attending.

Coleman said that ahead of the meeting, he had received three of five positive reviews so far, but he had received no reviews from Moland or Rios. When Moland and Rios canceled, he decided it was best to part ways with the district. He announced his retirement the following week.

"I couldn’t hitch my wagon to people who are so unprofessional," Coleman said.

Pam Padilla, a print room aide at Fairfax, is supporting the recall effort. She said decades ago the district was at risk of a state takeover, but it's become the kind of place where students can get an excellent education. She's sad to see people like Coleman leave not just because of who he is, but what it means for the community. 

"The kids are the ones that are suffering from this," Padilla said. "We, as adults, can get another job. The kids can't get another education once it's lost."

Moreno said financial mismanagement is another issue behind the recall. It's an issue that has come up repeatedly, including at Tuesday's meeting.

Like most school districts in Kern County, Fairfax hires Schools Legal Service to handle most of its legal matters. It pays an approximately $46,000 annual retainer. So the decision to hire outside counsel, Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost LLP, has drawn scrutiny. Despite this, Moland discouraged open board discussion while it was up for a vote, and it passed with support from Rios and Tapia. 

Warrants for $3,230 and $8,672 for Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost LLP the last two months have followed suit. Trustee Virginia Lawson has pulled them from the consent agenda for closed session discussions.

Kathryn Pariseau, an eighth grade language arts teacher in the district, said at Tuesday's meeting she invests $3,000 every year in her classroom, because she knows her students don't have the same advantages other students might. She said she's "disturbed" to see the district consider spending an additional $11,902 on outside counsel.

"I don't know about you but I don't like paying out all the money I need for my eighth graders — all at once to a second law firm — who need ink, who need decent writing instruments," Pariseau said.