Scandal, shock and sex rocked Kern County schools this year.
It was the year an out-of-town lawyer stepped into a chicken suit and called Kern High School District officials liars during a trial that resulted in a $10.5 million settlement; the year a Lamont administrator pulled down a $144,000 salary despite not having proper credentials; and the year some guns were allowed on KHSD campuses.
KERN HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
KHSD trustees acknowledge they’ve had a tough year — so bad they acknowledged it in August.
“We’ve had a very bloody year,” Trustee Jeff Flores announced during an Aug. 1 meeting when the district was considering hiring a PR firm to improve its image.
The board faced backlash in May when Trustees Mike Williams and Chad Vegas slammed federal anti-discrimination guidelines that made schools more inclusive to transgender people. Williams called it “blackmail” and “classless.”
Vegas, a pastor who served KHSD for 12 years, chose not to run for reelection because he said enforcing those policies would violate his religious conscience. A week later, Vegas called on Christian parents to abandon public schools.
Williams also called parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of personal beliefs “stupid” and “strange” during that Aug. 1 meeting.
A PR contract would have helped, but even that turned into a spectacle, Flores later said.
District officials recommended trustees sign a one-year, $387,000 contract with Providence Strategic Consulting, which employs Vegas’ nephew. Beyond the appearance of a conflict of interest, other PR agencies raised questions about the fairness of KHSD’s bidding process.
Meanwhile, trustees debated for months whether to allow Concealed Carry Weapon permit holders to bring guns to campus. Following a public back-and-forth, trustees allowed non-employees to carry on district property in late June. So far, about 13 people have signed up.
Then a week before Thanksgiving, trustees held a special session to force a vote that allowed teachers with CCW permits to carry guns. They were in a hurry because they wanted Vegas, a proponent of the policy, to weigh in before he left office.
All that came after June, when the district agreed to pay $10.5 million to Mitch Carter, a Bakersfield High School student who sustained a brain injury in 2010 during a pep rally. A school official asked Carter to don a chicken costume, meant to mock a rival mascot, but things went awry when a crowd of football players, cheerleaders and fans rushed out from the stands and mobbed Carter.
District lawyers unsuccessfully sought a gag order on anyone involved in the case and to have media barred from the court proceedings.
The trial’s coverage, including The Californian’s photos of Carter lawyer Nicholas Rowley wearing a chicken costume during closing statements, were picked up by international news agencies.
Beyond the settlement, the autonomy of KHSD’s police force was called into question when it was revealed at trial that administrators were taking witness statements and not sharing them with officers.
That courtroom revelation hinted at a deeper scandal. High-level district administrators were said to be misusing the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, a sensitive police database, to run background checks on students and at least one employee who filed a worker’s compensation claim against the district.
Various investigations were launched by the KHSD Police Department, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, and the Kern County and Tulare County District Attorney's offices.
Responding to the scandal, KHSD hired a Sacramento-based law firm to investigate the alleged misuse with no price ceiling and a Chicago-based police consulting firm for $78,100 to advise the district on best practices.
Since that CLETS scandal became public in August, the district has cycled through three police chiefs. One — Joseph Lopeteguy, the original whistleblower — filed a $2.2 million claim against the district alleging retaliation.
That claim was based on Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Mike Zulfa filing a police report alleging Lopeteguy was the one misusing CLETS. A Tulare County D.A.'s office investigation cleared Lopeteguy of wrongdoing in November.
The internal investigation is ongoing.
BREAKING BOND RECORDS
In spite of all the district’s missteps, voters passed KHSD’s $280 million bond measure, along with almost every other proposed school bond in Kern County, totaling more than $1.4 billion for school construction projects.
Additionally, the state’s $9 billion school bond passed, providing state matching funds for local projects.
The total value and number of school bonds passed shattered state and local records.
They included Kern Community College District securing $502.8 million, Bakersfield City School District $110 million and Fruitvale School District $23 million.
Voters in Lost Hills also approved $7 million in bonds.
WONDERFUL CHARTER OPPORTUNITY
Also in Lost Hills, agricultural behemoth The Wonderful Company clinched approval from the county board of education on Election Day to construct a charter school in the rural farming community, where a majority of homes house at least one Wonderful employee.
That’s worrying some administrators from the Lost Hills Union School District, which operates two schools with 554 students. Superintendent Harrison Faveraux expressed reservations about how the agricultural company’s school will impact attendance, and by extension, state funding.
But Wonderful Company officials say the startup will foster competition and create better opportunities for children in Lost Hills. They plan to begin enrolling students next fall.
SEX WITH MINORS
At least three school employees have either been accused, charged or convicted of engaging in sex acts with minors this year.
First, Beardsley Junior High teacher Vanessa Jean Hooker, 34, was sentenced to a year in jail for engaging in sex acts with a teenage boy in her classroom before school.
Then, Delano High School student services specialist Bobby Scott Campos Perigo, 29, was arrested and hit with seven charges related to unlawful sex acts, and one count of disobeying a court order.
Most recently, KHSD aide Marci Lynn Kendell, 27, was arrested on suspicion of engaging in sex acts with a 16-year-old boy attending classes at Vista West High School.
UNCREDENTIALED ADMINISTRATOR RESIGNS
A Lamont assistant superintendent earning $144,000 annually with benefits resigned in March after The Californian uncovered the fact he wasn't properly credentialed.
The Californian’s reporting also showed that Jose Cantu advocated for the elimination of four intern teaching positions because of budget constraints the same day he negotiated a $20,000 pay raise for himself.
That wasn’t widely known because it happened during a special session meeting, one of 20 the district called in 2015, something good government experts said should raise alarm bells. Cantu’s role has not been filled.
A NEW SCHOOLS CHIEF
While Lamont lost a top administrator, the Bakersfield City School District hired a new schools chief, Harry “Doc” Ervin.
Ervin, who has built his 22-year career around transforming schools, came with some criticism that he’s impatient and data-driven, and sets unrealistic goals.
Since taking charge of the 30,000-student district, Ervin has set out to hire 300 instructional aides, instituted a parent outreach program and dictated that principals spend a quarter of their day in classrooms coaching teachers.
There was no controversy, though, as Tom Burke was tapped to replace retiring Kern Community College District Chancellor Sandra Serrano and Mary Barlow was picked to succeed retiring Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier.
'THE CHAIRMAN' TAKES CHARGE
Bill Thomas, who represented Bakersfield in Congress for 28 years before retiring, returned to public office by being appointed a Kern Community College District trustee.
The onetime Bakersfield College instructor had been a vocal proponent of the district’s bond measure.
THE YEAR OF FLEEING TEACHERS
In rural Kern County, teachers fled en masse from two districts.
At Haven Drive Middle School in Arvin, a teacher’s association representative said it was because BCSD and KHSD offered to match salary schedules and disregard years of service caps.
At Vineland School District in Weedpatch, it was because Superintendent Matthew Ross publicly called his teachers “lazy” during stalled salary negotiations.
They initially wanted a 9 percent pay hike, but Ross refused. He pointed to teacher absence rates as proof they didn't deserve a raise.
His comments set off a firestorm among veteran teachers. Ross hired 14 new intern teachers in the fall after 15 of his 40 teachers fled as part of an organized mass resignation.
'THE STRIKE THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN'
One group that did compromise with management was Cal State University faculty, who earned a pay increase after years of failed talks when they threatened a systemwide strike that would have been the largest ever in higher education.
California Faculty Association leaders were calling for increases that would have cost $102 million over a two-year period. CSU countered with $33 million.
After authorizing the walkout, they agreed to a 10.5 percent salary increase through July 2018, and a 2.65 percent service salary increase for some faculty.
CFA President Jennifer Eagan called it “the largest strike that didn't actually happen.”