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Denis O'Leary. (Courtesy photo)
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

By Chris Frost



Oxnard-- Denis O'Leary, Trustee at the Oxnard School District is retiring after 17 years of service, but not before leveling charges of what he claims to be bigotry, discrimination, censorship, and retaliation on the part of the Board of Trustees.


During his time, he's seen the state test scores go from down to up and then back down again. Although he claims to haverepeatedly asked for an action plan to be placed on the agenda he says there’s no plan on the part of the Board to get scores back on track.


He accuses the District of parading the best students before the public, while the majority of them flounder and fail.


An Advocate for the Students


O'Leary wrote the living wage ordinance for the District. At the time, the Oxnard School District was the only district west of the Mississippi River to have a living wage.


He said the attorneys asked him to write the ordinance because they weren’t familiar with how the a wage ordinance should be structured


He says he also led the charge to get off the year-round school program and had an anti-bullying policy that he presented that students wrote, which gained national attention.


Unfortunately, he said, the District did not enforce the entire policy and parts of it were ignored.


O'Leary ran in the 2002 election, but he lost. 


"I was the odd person out," he said. "There were three seats up, and I was number four. I beat two incumbents, which I thought was odd."


After a board member passed away, he was interviewed and appointed, he said.


"This interview process was interesting for me because about 12 people were applying for this position, and I was new to the community," he said. "At least I could say that I ran for the position a year ago."


Out of the 12 applicants, O'Leary said he was the only one who had opposition because of his work with LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) as he was the district director.


"I was involved in some things," he said. "I even received some death threats. I was working in the El Rio School District, and I was still teaching in the El Rio School District, and a year after I started working there, the Superintendent, Yolanda Benitez, was being fired from the school board."  


Generally speaking, the District didn't need to give a reason for her termination, but they did in this instance.


"They had 12 different reasons why she should be fired on a list, and half of them had a lot to do with civil rights," O'Leary said. "At the time, the school board in El Rio were all Latino. They put on the paper that one of the reasons why they were firing her was that she was hiring too many Latinos, in writing."


He says he talked to “a bunch of people at LULAC,” and they were concerned about O'Leary because he worked there.


"The bottom line was, I told those guys that if this was an African-American that was being fired, and they wrote it on paper, and it said one of the reasons was the African-American was hiring too many African-Americans, would you expect the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to not get involved," he asked. 


He told them that LULAC needs to do the same thing.


"Half the items were solely up to their discretion, and they probably could have fired her if they had put those six items," he said. "They put the other six on that list, as well."


Ultimately, he said the school district committed a Brown Act violation, and they let Benitez go with giving proper public notice.


"With the Brown Act, you have to let the public know at least 24 hours in advance if you are going to do something," he said. "You're not voting on it publicly; you're not polling other elected officials publicly behind the scenes. Everything happens in the open." 


Benitez took that case to court.


"Generally, you never hear about Brown Act violations because they get settled fast," O'Leary said. "The easiest way to settle them is you put something on the agenda, and you vote on it a second time with 24-hour notice. Usually, it's no harm, no foul. In the El Rio case, they took it back to court each time. They kept on losing, and they kept on taking it back to court."


When it was over, Benitez won $1.3 million. 


"Each time they went to court, the amount went up," O'Leary said. "It's the only large Brown Act settlement in the history of the Brown Act."


During the entire process, O”Leary says he encountered lots of negativity and threats.


"People didn't like me," he said. "I even got some death threats. I had my mailbox blown up twice. It was some scary stuff for a time. I wasn't an elected official yet."


Long before he became a trustee, he became involved with bilingual education. When Proposition 227 came around in 1998, (which changed the way people with limited English skills were taught in California). He was the regional president of CABE, which is the bilingual association for teachers.


Prop 227 won, and his side lost, but O'Leary became involved with politics at that point.


"I signed on as a plaintiff in a case called Palazuelos versus the State Board of Education," he said. "I was one of the five plaintiffs. Until about 12 hours before the papers were filed, it was going to be O'Leary versus the State Board of Education. We thought that a Latino name might be better."


The case was about Federal funds being given to students so they could become literate, he said, and when the Federal program arrived in California, the California state board said that English speakers only need apply for the money.


He signed onto that case because he had three sons in bilingual programs.


"It took a couple of years, but we won that case," he said. "The number was $813 million. I'm never going to win $813 million again in my life. My brother called me up and said, can I visit your island?"


The money all went to schools.


"I didn't receive a penny," he said. "It went to schools, including the Oxnard Elementary School District, and it went in the form of a raffle, and they were going to finance the schools to have a ratio of 20 students to one teacher."


They made it a raffle because there wasn't enough money for every school in the state.


"We, at Oxnard Elementary, were lucky in the raffle, and we had seven schools that benefitted from those funds from that lawsuit," he said.


Taking Office 


After winning the lawsuit, but before they started handing out the money, O'Leary became a trustee.


"At the time, my main interest was making sure that our non-English-speaking students would get a good education," he said. "From the beginning, there were comments that I didn't need much time to get up to speed with everyone else."


In 2003, the Oxnard Elementary School District had a year-round school system and put four children into three seats. 


"We rotated them throughout the year," he said. "It was practical only in the case that we didn't have enough schools to put all our kids, but as far as the test scores and educationally, it was dismal."


When O'Leary became a trustee, the Oxnard School District was one of the few districts in the state that still used the year-round school program. The school districts still using the program had high minority populations that were actually in the majority in those districts.


"It was a form of racism," he said. "Luckily, when I got on the board, we had done this for so many years that the trustees thought we couldn't get away from it."


It wasn't just him, but O'Leary became the swing vote to take the District away from year-round school.


"It wasn't overnight," he said. "It went in stages, but we did get off that year-round program," he said. "We also started receiving the money for the 20:1 student-teacher ratios."


In 2003, only 17 percent of the students passed the state testing measures.


"That's an 83 percent failure rate," he said. "The state threatened to take us over many times, but when it was all said and done, it was only threats."


After the District got off year-round school and added the money for 20:1 student-teacher ratios, the scores started going up.


"Around 2008, we had about 50 percent of our kids passing the test," he said. "It wasn't a final goal, but it was getting there."


In 2008-2009, he said a couple of trustees changed, and the board swung in a different direction.


"Particularly Veronica Robles-Solis, and Ernie Morrison," O'Leary said. "Ernie Morrison was a retired principal from our school district, and he disagreed with class-size reduction. I don't have a problem with him disagreeing with it, and some people do. He would openly say that good teachers teach, no matter how many students are there."


O'Leary has taught for 30 years, and he said although Morrison is right, it helps the teachers and students if fewer people compete for the teacher's attention.


"Veronica Robles-Solis nominated Morrison for board president the first day she was sworn-in," O'Leary said. "He got the third vote, and he was board president the first day he was sworn in, and we're all saying what?"


Morrison was a retired school principal, O' Leary said, but he did comment several times that he was surprised to see what being on the school board was like.


In 2008, the District started its first bond issue, Measure R, to replace some schools that needed replacement badly. The initiative promised class size reduction.


The schools started going up, and O'Leary saw the new schools had fewer classrooms than the ones they were replacing.


"I said wait a second," O'Leary said. "This is not happening. We physically need the classrooms, and we promised it in the bond."


In the meantime, the $813 million from the lawsuit started to run out.


"All of a sudden, our class sizes shot up, and we were building schools with fewer classrooms," he said. "It's going to be more difficult even if we do get further funding."


The District went towards construction, and the test score went back down to 17 percent again.


O'Leary attributes some of the drop to overcrowding.


"There's a lot of good people that we hired," he said. "Starting about nine years ago, I can't get the subject of class size reduction on the agenda. I can't get academics on the agenda."


Along with Trustee Debra Cordes, he argued during open sessions.


"When I mentioned that our test scores are low, and I have fellow trustees telling me their test scores are doing just fine," O'Leary said. "An 83 percent failure rate is not just fine in most communities, and it shouldn't be just fine here."


One cardinal sin he committed involved an open position for a vice-principal at one school, and Superintendent Cesar Morales went to the board and said they interviewed 23 applicants, and they're all good.


"This one person rose to the top, and we recommend this young lady," O'Leary said that Morales told them. "I knew that one of Morrison's daughters was applying for the position, but I didn't ask her married name on purpose because I didn't want to know, and I didn't want it to influence me."


O'Leary voted for the candidate, and Sarah Lepe became the vice principal.


"Ernie (Morrison) recused himself, as he should, and it was a 4-0 vote," O'Leary said. "Two weeks later, I found on the agenda at the last moment that we had to vote on a waiver for her because she wasn't qualified. She didn't have enough education experience. She was close, but she needed a waiver."


His first question was if the other 22 applicants qualified, and they were.


"To me, it sounded like a no-brainer, but it turned into nepotism, and it was a 3-0 vote to promote Ernie's daughter to the vice-principal position," O'Leary said. "In the following weeks, I had the superintendent come to me and say, wouldn't you like to know that she is doing a good job?"


He always answered that he hoped she was doing a good job.


"I am looking for the best qualified, not the daughter of one the elected officials," he said.  


Two years later, there were two principal positions open, and he said the best fit for those positions was the daughter of Ernie Morrison and the daughter of Debra Cordes.


"The daughter of Debra Cordes was to be placed at the same school that Debra Cordes spent her career as a principal," O'Leary said. "The daughter of Ernie Morrison, Sarah Lepe, was to be placed at the same school that he spent his career. "Doesn't that look nice in the family album?"


Debra Cordes' daughter was qualified for the position, but at that point, he started to question the process. 


"We weren't told how many other applicants there were," O'Leary said. "It was just the two daughters of the two trustees who were the most qualified."


He brought it up during the voting session and mentioned nepotism.


"The superintendent said, Trustee O'Leary, your son (Dominick), works for the school district," he said. "What's the difference?"


O'Leary told Morales that his son started two months earlier as a substitute teacher, and there is a shortage of substitute teachers.


"He's qualified, and he didn't bump anyone out for the position," O'Leary said. "We need more substitute teachers, and he is not making an administrative salary. That's the difference."


Two weeks later, Dominick attended a board meeting and said publicly that he resented being used as an excuse for nepotism.


"He resigned and turned in his resignation," O'Leary said. 


When asked about open positions in the Oxnard School District, O'Leary can't help them.


"It hurts me, sometimes, and I'm sure they would like to have a little boost," he said. "That's not in my power."


O'Leary was board president 11 years ago, but the board is different now.


For some people, he said it's important to have and noted there is no pay increase.


"The superintendent shows the agenda to the board president, and the board president accepts the agenda," he said. "They can delete things and recommend that an item be placed on the agenda. Two trustees can also decide if they want something."


Over the last several years, O'Leary said that had been ignored.


"Quite often, the board president has been passed back-and-forth from Veronica Robles-Solis and Ernie Morrison," O'Leary said. 


In the meantime, the District wanted another bond, and he opposed the item. 


He claims the labor unions called him and asked why he opposed the bond and pointed out it meant community jobs.


"I told them I was concerned about the spending and the end product," he said. "Test scores are going down, and it interfered with the academics. The labor unions still endorsed me and still supported me."


O'Leary championed district elections, which took him 10 years to get on the agenda.


"The district election should also have a rotation of who has the power to control the agenda," he said. "I get quiet and grin every time I bring that up."


Over the last several years, O'Leary said bigotry and discrimination became evident.


"I had two of the trustees tell me on separate occasions that no white person is going to be president of an all minority board," he said. "It might just be mean-spirited because they seem to get a license to be mean-spirited."


He says he kept quiet because it might be a window into why they act that way.


In Dec. 2018, the school district won an award, and he was asked to go to San Francisco. He found out the hotel where they were giving out the award was on strike, and he refused to cross the picket line.


"I grew up knowing that you don't cross a picket line," he said. "I had the school district get their money refunded."


The District wanted to send someone else.


"I didn't want them to profit off me," he said. "Two weeks later, I'm not elected board president again." 


In April 2019, the District had a special board meeting at Harrington Elementary School, which talked about the Brown Act and working together. 


The District had their attorney, Bonnie Garcia, attending, along with Attorney Nitasha Sawhney and Superintendent Morales.


"Bonnie is in the middle of the horseshoe with the trustees facing the center," he said. "In the next section, we are going to talk about the elephant in the room."


He looked at Garcia and asked if he was the elephant, and he said yes.


"Dennis, I talked to your fellow trustees, and they don't want you to give your opinions of why you are going to vote a certain way. If you do, they will censure you."


O'Leary paused, and he said that it doesn't mean anything. The two laughed.


"I put my hands out like they were going to handcuff me, and I said go ahead and censure me," O'Leary said. "I talked to the four trustees. Garcia said. Stop asking; you're never going to be board president." 


OLeary said both of the two last pieces are Brown Act Violations. One of them involves a constitutional amendment. The Brown Act violations come from him polling the other trustees who said he would censure me if I gave my opinion.


The second Brown Act violation came when he polled the trustees, and they said he wouldn't ever be president.


"You can poll as many trustees as you want, but you're not supposed to let the trustees know the results of the poll," he said. "It has to be publicly announced ahead of time, and this was on the fly."


He plans to ask the district attorney to review the Brown Act violations and investigate the trustees.


"Right now, the board of trustees are in a bad state," O'Leary said.