FRESNO – The board of the insolvent West Fresno School District could secure a county loan to pay teachers and staff their back pay, but only if the board puts the county school superintendent in control of the district temporarily.
The board and the superintendent have been in a standoff over control of the district that resulted in canceled classes Friday as most teachers skipped school and most pupils stayed home.
The walkout was the climax of a two-year feud over finances between the district’s governing board and the Fresno County Office of Education.
James Tucker, president of the five-member district school board, said county schools Superintendent Pete Mehas is withholding the money the district needs to pay salaries and expenses.
But Mehas claims he doesn’t have the money because the district, which has an annual budget of $8.3 million, spent it. He estimates the school is at least $220,000 in debt and perhaps as much as $2 million.
The money issue is just one of the district’s well-publicized problems. It has hired convicted felons, been sued by more than 20 former employees and has had six superintendents in the last year and a half.
Mehas, who approves budgets for 34 school districts, has offered to loan about $1 million from his office to the district, but he wants authority over personnel and expenses. Tucker said he won’t surrender control to Mehas.
Among other things, Tucker claims Mehas is crazy. Mehas says the “rogue board” is inept and corrupt.
In all the controversy, classes have never been canceled. The state Department of Education said the crisis was a first for the state.
“There have been situations where a school district needed financial assistance, but that has been welcomed by all parties,” said Nicole Winger, state education spokeswoman. “There are certainly political elements to this situation.”
The tiny two-school district was a chaotic landscape as teachers and staff called in sick in epidemic numbers the day after they didn’t get their monthly paychecks.
“It was pitiful, absolutely tragic,” said Terry Flanagan, a union representative for nonteachers. “Young children were in tears because their teachers weren’t there. They were afraid to go with any other teacher. They were clinging to their parents.”
In some cases, parents dropping off their children were angry and frustrated because they had to choose between going to work or leaving their kids with strangers. With little instruction planned, some parents took their children home.
On Thursday, the board delayed a decision until Saturday on the compromise proposal that would make the county loan available and put Mehas in control until the county and district agree on a temporary administrator. If they can’t agree, the state will appoint one.The board’s decision Thursday might have kept the elementary and middle schools running smoothly Friday.
Instead, only six of the 59 teachers and about 120 of the 1,000 students came to school Friday. About half of the 65 support staff reported to work.
The handful of adults had to police a rowdy cafeteria of students at the middle school. Student were seen bolting across a field and hopping a fence.
For students who stuck around, there were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and even some impromptu entertainment.
Mayor Alan Autry intervened in the crisis, bringing Dexter the Magician to amuse the kids.
But Dexter didn’t perform any trick that made the teachers come back.