Photo: SUSD Board of Trustees President Cecelia Mendez (left) and trustee Ray Zulueta (right) are among two of the three members of the board who tried unsuccessfully to sue fellow trustee AngelAnn Flores. The trio has appealed. (DUANE SANDERS/CONTRIBUTOR)
Three trustees from Stockton Unified’s hot mess of a school board sued a fourth for defamation, seeking $20 million. When they lost, the court ordered them to pay the defendant’s legal fees.
That was in November. Guess what?
“They have yet to pay,” said Clarence Chan.
Chan is the attorney for the winner, trustee AngelAnn Flores. The losers, Board Chair Cecilia Mendez, Alicia Rico, and Raymond C. Zulueta, are appealing.
But an appeal does not stay enforcement of judgment, Chan said. The plaintiffs owe Flores $19,608 (with 10% interest). To not pay is to flout a court order.
This story speaks volumes about the caliber of leadership in Stockton Unified, Stockton’s biggest school district with approximately 37,600 students, 1,600 teachers, over 50 schools, and an annual budget upwards of $600 million.
But then there already are volumes about Stockton Unified — two blistering grand jury reports documenting leaders’ ineptitude and suspicious practices. The grand jury said leaders’ bad budgeting may drive the district into insolvency within years.
And millions of dollars are missing.
These are among the topics that animate trustee Flores. She is often the lone dissenter on Stockton Unified’s notoriously dysfunctional 7-person board.
During meetings, she can be outspoken, indecorous, accusatory or insulting. She snarls that her colleagues are corrupt; in cahoots with former Stockton Mayor Anthony Silva, a convicted felon; embezzlers; vote-bribers; nepotists.
The three trustees, filing suit in July 2021, claimed they had suffered, besides defamation, invasion of privacy, “humiliation, embarrassment, loss of reputation and significant emotional distress.”
Zulueta’s complaint further alleged that his “educational programming” business lost $15,000 as well as “opportunities for other contracts in the 56 public schools that make up Stockton Unified …”
That’s telling; Zulueta aimed to use his position on the school board to hawk his program in scores of Stockton Unified schools. It’s all about the kids, right?
Chan said the case was not really about defamation. “I believe it was an act of bullying.”
He argued in court filings that the suit was a SLAPP suit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. One intended to stifle Flores’ dissent more than to protect the plaintiffs’ reputations.
By the way — what reputations?
- The district is being investigated by the FBI, the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, the California State Employee Association, journalists and watchdogs.
- The head of the state’s Financial Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) came right out in July and said he expects his audit of Stockton Unified to uncover fraud.
- The groundswell of public outrage following the last grand jury report has reached torches-and-pitchforks intensity.
- Media coverage broadcast all over Northern California virtually ensures most trustees will never get a job even running the Pixie Woods train.
And the investigations have not even produced charges. Yet. Reputation-wise for the trustees and senior district management, it may get worse.
Superior Court Judge Jayne Lee, in finding for Flores, cited two reasons: first, the U.S. constitution offers broad protections for speech during public government business.
Second, the trustees’ lawsuit deserved an F+. “Mere assertions that a statement is false, even in sworn declarations, do not satisfy a Plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate falsity,” Lee wrote in her decision.
Translation: plaintiffs claimed Flores lied but presented no evidence.
Lee further wrote, as if trying to explain the concept of evidence to the plaintiffs, “Simply negation of the challenged statement fails to fairly meet its substance … Plaintiffs were required to do more than they did.”
Chan said the suit was shake-my-head senseless. The trustees belong to a 6-to-1 supermajority; they invariably prevail; to sue for defamation was to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
“Normally, the six just ignore the one,” said Chan. “But I think these folks just couldn’t stop themselves and decided to punish her by suing.”
These folks just couldn’t stop themselves. Alas, that is probably true. Stockton Unified’s board distills the petty drama of 100 Maury Povich shows. You cheated with the neighbor! Your sister told me!
A mediation session failed in part because the plaintiffs wanted Flores to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and she refused.
“They were attempting to silence me,” Flores said. “I stood my ground.”
Chan slapped a lien on the house of Board Chair Cecilia Mendez (let that sink in). Unable to find houses for Rico and Zulueta, he vowed to garnish their wages.
It’s my belief that the grifters infesting Stockton Unified — including the behind-the-scenes Moriartys who beat the bushes for these lame trustees — have their eye on Stockton City government. City Hall is to be the next host for their parasitism.
They must be stopped. Government by those swindlers would make the corrupt and feckless tenure of Mayor Anthony Silva look like the Golden Age of Pericles.
The best hope is for FCMAT to expose fraud before District Attorney Tori-Verber Salazar terms out December 31, allowing her to storm into Stockton Unified with warrants and kick ass.
Cecilia Mendez and Raymond C. Zulueta declined to comment for this story. Their attorney did not return a call.
Alicia Rico went full Maury on me. Rico blasted me as biased, called Flores a liar, and said her case lost not because of the law, or because the plaintiffs spaced out about that evidence thing, but because Flores has pull with the D.A. (who must have pull with Judge Lee).
Rico also remarkably proclaimed that she owes Flores nothing. Never mind the court order.
“That’s big lie,” Rico said. “I don’t have to pay for it. The district will pay for everything.”
Typical, said Flores.
“When a judge legitimately told them they were wrong — just like the civil grand jury told them they were wrong — they continued to deny it,” Flores said. “It’s like they’re telling them the sky is blue and they’re saying, ‘No it’s not. It’s green.’ Then they go outside and say to the public ‘She’s lying. The sky is not blue, it’s green.’ Then the community says, ‘It’s not, it’s blue, we see it’s blue.’ Then they say, ‘You guys are on her side.’ ”
As for Ms. Rico … I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but (are you sitting down, ma’am?) you sued individually, not under Stockton Unified’s auspices.
District spokesperson Melinda Meza: “SUSD’s legal counsel confirms Stockton Unified School District has no liability or obligation to pay the court-ordered legal fees.”
Also, the sky is blue, ma’am.
Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Show side panel