Emotions ran high at a Stockton Unified School District town hall Thursday night, where board members and the district’s superintendent listened to concerns from the community in response to a scathing grand jury report released earlier this summer.
A particularly tense moment occurred when Stockton Unified Board of Education President Cecilia Mendez moved to close the town hall a little over 15 minutes after it began.
Though the district boardroom was packed, only a handful of community members initially filled out speaker cards to get their three minutes at the podium. Mendez then promptly began to adjourn the session, unleashing a wave of anger through the audience.
Attendees admonished interim Superintendent Traci Miller and board members for moving so hastily to close the scheduled two-hour meeting, especially before addressing any of the concerns initially raised. Some community members even began passing around and filling out speaker cards so they could keep the town hall going.
One SUSD staff member, who would only identify herself as Kristin H., described the move to shut down the meeting so early as “absolutely appalling.” Many were concerned that there may have been people still on their way or simply waiting to comment until they’d collected their thoughts.
“Even if there are no comments being read out at the moment this meeting should still be open,” Fix SUSD Co-Founder David Sengthay said, noting that there was an expectation the town hall would last two hours.
Each time staff told Mendez there were no more speakers in the queue, additional attendees headed to the podium in an attempt to stall, with some even just standing there silently or chatting with the crowd as they ran down the clock.
The town hall ended up lasting nearly the entire two hours.
Mendez and Miller were joined by board trustees Ray Zulueta and Scot McBrian. The town hall was held to allow community members to voice their concerns regarding a San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury report released in June, which stated that Stockton Unified suffers from poor business practices, a lack of public transparency and financial mismanagement.
One of the Grand Jury’s biggest concerns was that the district could see at least a $30 million deficit in the next two years. The district is also currently being investigated for possible fraud by the state’s Financial Crisis and Management Assistance Team.
Current Grand Jury findings were a result of a months-long investigation and followed a similarly-scathing report last year.
Town hall attendees expressed anger, frustration and sadness that the district’s board failed to address issues previously brought by the Grand Jury and finds itself in a place that was no better than last year.
“It’s your failures that may result in a county takeover of our school board, of our school district,” community organizer and Fix SUSD founder Harpreet Chima said. “When the county comes in that means we, as citizens, have no more say in how our school district is governed. Parents don’t have a say, teachers don’t have a say, unions don’t have a say. You’re putting the district in risk, due to your own mismanagement, and due to your own failures.”
Speakers also said the district doesn’t seem to care about its students, faculty, staff or the community, focusing more on petty grievances rather than supporting the kids that have been charged to their care. Board members were accused of cutting programs, mismanaging funds, showing a lack of transparency and mistreating its teachers and staff.
Michelle Rodarte Munoz, a longtime Stockton educator and SUSD instructional coach, said the Grand Jury report provided her relief by validating what she and others have witnessed.
“This board has caused low morale across the district in a time where there is a nationwide educator crisis and shortage,” Munoz said. “We have had to endure and attempt to function in a dysfunctional, broken machine.”
Many attendees were also upset that Miller and the board members did not respond to speakers, as well as the fact that four board members were absent — AngelAnn Flores, Alicia Rico, Maria Mendez and Zachary Ignacio Avelar. However, Miller and board members were seen taking notes and speaking with attendees after the meeeting was adjourned.
As this was a town hall and not a regular board meeting, Miller said having more than three board members present would violate the state’s open meetings law by constituting a quorum. The town hall was also meant to be a listening session where the community could express concerns uninterrupted, she said.
“I was up there taking (copious) notes,” Miller said, adding that she wants to use all her abilities and influence to bring the district together. “We’re at a crossroads. This is a great opportunity for us to get back on the right path. I am 100%, 200% committed to that.”
Additional town halls will be scheduled in the future that will allow for more back and forth between the community and board members, Stockton Unified spokesperson Melinda Meza said.
“This is just step one,” she said.