Ontario district’s turmoil fuels school board races

Ontario School Board members, from left, Eric Evans, Bianca Rodriguez, former school board member Derrick Draper and Renae Corn. (The Enterprise/file)

UPDATE: See the questions posed to all the candidates by the Enterprise at the end of the story.

ONTARIO – Seven candidates are running for four seats on the Ontario School Board at a critical time for the district. Years of bickering and accusations between board and administration culminated in the current board’s recent formal censure of Directors Eric Evans and Derrick Draper, and the resignation of the latter.

The board also committed in its meeting of Tuesday, April 20, to mediation between board members and district administrators, a step it had rejected in the past. 

The election is taking place in the midst of this contentious environment. Evans holds the only seat not up in the May 18 election. Board Chair Renae Corn, however, decided not to run for reelection after 12 years serving Ontario.

Draper’s name will remain on the ballot and it’s unclear if he wants to be elected again. He declined to respond to questions from the Enterprise on that matter. On the ballot, he is opposed by Tom Greco, an Ontario pastor.

On the ballot, Matt Stringer, executive director of the Four Rivers Cultural Center, is running against Jeff Schauer. Since filing, Schauer dropped out of the race for what he said were personal reasons. 

Stringer cited his experience in the records industry and in his current role at Four Rivers Cultural Center as evidence that he would be a strong leader. Stringer produced a promotional campaign which led to the success of Island Records’ best-selling album of 1993, selling 16 million copies worldwide. The cultural ws center duplicated its attendance in seven years under his leadership.

“I want to be a change agent for the school board and help build a kind, respectful and effective support system for 8C administration and faculty,” Stringer said. “To me, children matter. I see kids as our most valuable human resource.”

Stringer said that he has worked with all of Ontario’s principals in the course of his work to “bring programs that augment local teachers’ curriculum.”

“My goal is to be an effective supporter of the school district,” he said. “To work collaboratively and build trust and enthusiasm with the members of our community.” 

Tom Greco, pastor of Ontario Community Church and a retired U.S. Army colonel from the Iraq War, is seeking the seat held until recently by Draper.

“I lead by example and my service to our nation in the Army, on professional boards for Seattle Pacific University, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, serving on various Ontario city task forces attest of my competence and willingness to do what is best for our community,” Greco said. “The only agenda I have is to do what is best for our children and helping them learn.”

Greco’s professional experience includes working with a faculty team to rewrite a graduate program for business at the University of Phoenix, and serving on a joint services team that negotiated a treaty with Panama about the use of the Panama Canal. He said that he was motivated to run for the school board by the current board’s culture of conflict and “disrespect.”

“The uncalled for and unprofessional drama during board meetings over the past year, the badgering of other board members and the unpreparedness of the board to give the superintendent a timely and comprehensive evaluation, based on results and not subjective innuendo, demonstrates a lack of professionalism and caring,” Greco said. “The board must really listen to administrators and help them solve problems, not create new ones.”

Craig Geddes, a current member of the school board, is running against Martin Mendoza Jr., employed in information technology for Four Rivers Cultural Center and has a trucking business on the side. Mendoza didn’t respond to detailed questions from the Enterprise about his candidacy

Geddes, director of the Malheur County Environmental Health Department, was voted onto the board last September by his fellow board members after former chair Mike Blackaby resigned. As a board member, he often sided with his censured colleagues, Draper and Evans, on matters such as the superintendent’s evaluation. All three men had consistently harsher critiques of the superintendent than their colleagues, Corn and Blanca Rodriguez.

As a parent, Geddes sent his children to the Ontario School District before enrolling them last year in the Oregon K12 program, an online school option. He said he intends to re-enroll his children in the district this fall. 

Prior to being on the school board, he was Parent Teacher Organization president at Alameda Elementary School for three years. 

“To me being a leader is being a team player,” Geddes said. “I will never ask someone to do a task I am not willing to do myself. While I have been on the school board I have strived to be a team player by listening to all points of view before making a decision. I will always make decisions based on all of the information available. Sometimes that requires delaying a decision so more information can be gathered. It is also important that team members always express their ideas and thoughts.”

Geddes said that he wants to “help restore trust between the community, the school board, and the school staff.” 

In his professional life, Geddes has played a key role in coordinating the county’s Covid response. He urged community members to get vaccinated “so we can get our kids safely back into school.”

There are three people running for the final open seat. Rodriguez is the current board member up for reelection, and her race is against Cydney Cooke, vice president of a biodiesel company, and Tony Cade, an educator at the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.

As a school board member, Rodriguez has been largely supportive of district staff and administrators. 

“I just have a lot of respect for educators,” she said. “I know how hard they work seven days a week from morning to night, so educators deserve respect.”

Aside from her position on the school board, Rodriguez, who has lived in the district for 53 years, has a background working with Migrant Head Start and the Department of Human Services. She is also cofounder of the Mexican American Citizens League, a local group which offers support, activities and scholarships to Mexican American youth. 

Rodriguez has served on the school board for four years, and said she wants to continue because “because I want to continue seeing this growth. It’s rewarding to belong to this group of administrators. I just need to be supportive of the high expectations of the superintendent.”

“Our current goal is to meet student needs post-Covid and together, create conditions for success,” she said.

Rodriguez is currently the only Latinx member of the school board in a district that is 62% Latinx. 

Her first challenger, Cydney Cooke, is a former district parent who has been civically engaged in various projects and commissions around Ontario. She has run voter registration drives, circulated petitions, and participated in groups like Friends of the Aquatic Center and the Planning and Zoning Commission. 

“I decided to run for school board after the past year the school district has had,” she said. “From the unfortunate pandemic to the abrupt departure of an ex-officio member and lastly seeing an empty board registration sheet sitting in Vale, I saw it was my civic duty to pitch in, fill an empty seat and be of assistance where needed.”

“My goals for the school district are simple. They include equity, diversity, effective communication, an internal rebranding, team building and a parent partnership,” she said. 

Cooke said that she was not worried about the board’s history of conflict with the school administration, because with fresh faces, the conflict would stop. 

Cade is another former district parent who, along with his wife, also used to teach for the district. They have both since left the district for other jobs. 

Cade said he has more than 20 years of experience in education, including beyond the classroom as a coach and coordinator of an extracurricular anti-bullying program. 

“The motivation to do right by kids and teachers is why I am running for school board,” he said. “We need to get back to the business of giving students a rewarding educational experience. Every decision should be made with the students in mind.” 

Cade said his primary goals for the school board included facilitating a full return to in-person instruction, giving the community more say in district functions, listening to students and teachers, and improving the morale of students and staff. 

He also said that he would support the creation of an online academy for those students who want to continue attending school virtually. This idea has been discussed during school board meetings as a possibility for the next school year. 

All candidates for the board were questioned about their stance toward the recent petition to remove Jodi Elizondo as principal at Ontario High School. A few encouraged further discussion on the matter, while others said they were “offended” by the petition’s claims. 

“It is past time we include the community in the conversation,” said Cade. “The petition is a result of the school district not taking comments from the community or allowing for grievances to be heard.” 

“I support a democracy and the ability to voice differences of opinion in a peaceful manner,” said Cooke. 

“(The school board) does not have the ability to fire a principal,” said Geddes. However, “I also do not think that the petition can be ignored. It has brought to light a very high level of discord in our community and as a board member, I am very concerned.” 

Stringer, Rodriguez, and Greco disagreed. 

“It has no validity,” Stringer said. “The lack of sophistication and good intentions is awful. It is personal, not reflective of her skills as a senior administrator. It is silly, inflammatory, sexist, and dangerous.” 

“There’s data that shows that good things are happening at the high school, but I guess some parents are not pleased and I don’t know what their concerns are,” Rodriguez said. “Also the Ontario School District has a webpage where you can share your concerns or ideas or ask questions, so let’s use that.”

“I have yet to see any facts or supporting evidence in this very hurtful and unprofessional approach,” said Greco. “Unfortunately today’s social media platforms allows for and supports rumors and unsubstantiated statements to be viewed as truthful. I simply do not subscribe to this type of unfounded and hurtful approach. I see this petition approach as high tech bullying.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

QUESTIONS: Here are the questions sent by email to all the board candidates:

*Why do you consider yourself an effective leader?

*Describe one work or volunteer experience where you acted as a leader to accomplish a specific goal.

*Why do you consider yourself an effective team player?

*Describe one work or volunteer experience where you acted as a team player to accomplish a specific goal:

*Why are you running for school board? What goals do you have for the Ontario School District?

*Students have had a tough year, both in terms of mental health and academics, thanks to the pandemic and distance learning. What one issue related to the pandemic would you plan to address as a board member, and how?

*The current Ontario school board has had significant conflicts with school administrators. How do you propose to resolve these conflicts?

*The Ontario School District has seen great success over the past ten years with improved graduation rates, especially for students from underserved demographics. What steps would you take as a board member to protect and advance these successes? 

*What proposal do you have to advance the goal of equity for underserved students?

*There is currently a petition with more than 850 signatures circulating which asks for the removal of Dr. Jodi Elizondo as principal of the high school. What action do you support regarding the petition?

*The evaluation of Superintendent Nikki Albisu by the current school board was very contentious this year, with current board members expressing widely divergent opinions on the superintendent’s performance. What is your assessment of the superintendent?


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