By Reggie Ellis
For most of Farmersville Unified School District’s 2,500 students, Jan. 14 was just another Tuesday in class. But 150 students never made it to class because they held a protest at the District Office.
Students held signs reading “Save Our Schools,” “Goodbye Dr. Luna,” and “Save Mr. Flores” lined the sidewalk on Freedom Drive across from the FUSD Office to let administrators – namely Superintendent Dr. Christina Luna – know they are unhappy about the direction of the school district. The students, mostly teenagers, organized the demonstration by passing out fliers and circulating them through Social Media.
While most students declined to talk, fearing they would be suspended for ditching school, at least a few parents were willing to speak up about why they were protesting.
Melinda Fiero said five of her six children decided to attend the protest ranging in age from 10 to 18. Others in the crowd said there were students from every grade level from kindergarten to high school seniors at the protest.
“I gave them the option to do whatever they wanted to do,” she said. “They told me, ‘If this is what it takes to get their attention than I’m in.’ These students took the decision into their own hands and I support them for doing what they think is right.”
Fiero said every parent in the district received an automated voicemail telling them it was against the law to allow their students to skip school with an unexcused absence. She also said some parents received a call from their principals saying if their child did not attend school without an excuse they would not be allowed to participate in sports or walk in a graduation ceremony.
“I would take legal action if they prevented one of my children from doing that,” she said. “There is no way they will stop my children from being a part of graduation.”
In a later interview, Dr. Luna said she was unsure what exactly parents and students were upset about.
Luna said she was proud of her accomplishments in her first two years with the district. She cited the initial phase of Common Core curriculum, providing a single, cohesive language and curriculum from kindergarten through high school graduation and more professional development for teachers and administrators. In the last two years, Luna said FUSD has reduced class size at the K-3 grades, introduced two transitional kindergarten classes, offered more science classes at the junior high and high school and implemented a new data system to monitor student progress.
Board President Alice Lopez said some of the signs and comments she saw and heard from students were about the misuse of funds, overspending and that the principal at Farmersville High School was going to be fired for voicing his opinion. Lopez said none of those things are true nor is there any evidence to support the allegations.
“I thought it was unfortunate,” she said. “A lot of these kids are being misled and they don’t have all the facts.”
The signs about Mr. Flores were in reference to the Farmersville High School Principal Ernie Flores’ comments at the Dec. 10 board meeting. During the public comment period, Flores claimed some of his teachers were targeted for speaking out against the administration, that a student’s grades were changed without his approval and that software was installed on his computer that would allow the district office to spy on him without his knowledge. Flores ended his statement by saying he would be targeted and possibly lose his job for speaking against the superintendent.
But Lopez said firing FHS Principal Ernie Flores has never been discussed and it has never been on any on any agenda as a personnel matter under closed session. She pointed out that when principals were reassigned to different schools last summer, Flores was one of only two principals to stay at the same school. Lopez said the district had to make changes at the top of several schools because Farmersville’s API scores weren’t improving.
That’s also the reason the Board recently renewed the contract with staff development consultants Principal’s Exchange. The $100,000 contract has been spotlighted as a prime example of overspending by the district office because the same services are offered for half as much by the Tulare County Office of Education. And while Lopez admits it is more expensive than services offered by the TCOE, FUSD did not see improvement using those services.
“People don’t like change,” Lopez said. “But this change had to occur. Parents say they can’t get answers, but they are getting them. They just don’t like the answers.”
Lopez said charges of overspending have been dramatically overstated when you consider some of Dr. Luna’s decisions have saved the district, or the community, money. Her decision to end the afterschool programming contract with the Boys & Girls Club saved the district about $100,000 by signing a last minute contract with Pro-Youth/HEART. She also said Luna was able to put up permanent lights at the practice field saving the district possibly $8,000 per year in light rentals and generator for night time practices. In October, then Board President Al Vanderslice said deficit spending was not new to the district. He said reserves had fallen from 11% to 5% but that was well above the state’s requirement of 3%.
“She has been crucified unjustly,” Lopez said. “If people would just remain calm and get the facts before they become agitated a lot of this could have been avoided. Everything going on is just making hard to move forward in the district.”
Lopez said if the board had to vote right now, she would renew Dr. Luna’s contract despite the controversial meetings, community outrage and student protest.
“Based on the job she has done as superintendent, yes I would renew her contract,” Lopez said.
But the Board of Trustees is clearly divided. Throughout the last few months, Lopez has voted in the affirmative for most of Luna’s recommendations along with former President Al Vanderslice and Trustee John Vasquez. Alex Reyes was the lone dissenting vote on many issues over the last six months until recently, when Don Mason began questioning the district office and the superintendent.
One of the longest tenured members with 18 years on the board, local businessman Don Mason said he would not renew her contract. He said it isn’t because of any wrongdoing, but because she isn’t listening to the parents and the community.
“She wants to do things her way and want to have complete control,” he said. “But people in Farmersville don’t like what she’s doing so they are making their voices heard.”
Mason said he has talked with many district staff members who say they are afraid to speak out against Dr. Luna for fear of losing their jobs. He said they have been told if they talk to anyone about their concerns they will be written up and eventually fired. He went on to say she has openly discussed firing good employees who were good people because they did not agree with her philosophy.
“I thought I could help her but she doesn’t want to change,” he said. “When you make a mistake you correct it and move on. But she always has to be right.”
Mason said the Board must decide by March 15 whether or not to renew the contract for the controversial superintendent.
“She’s not applying her expertise to the job and has an agenda that is no good for the district,” Mason said. “She wants complete control of the district and want everything done her way. She works for the people and that’s why I wouldn’t renew her contract.”
The Farmersville Unified School District Board meets at 6:45 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at the district office, located at 571 E. Citrus St. in Farmersville. For more information, call the district office at 559-592-2010.