Parents, kids protest Ontario school closures as school board convenes

Fifteen parents and a dozen kids on Monday protested the Ontario School District’s plan to mothball a pair of rural elementary schools and put students in each grade into the same building.

The school district is moving to a grade-based school system that will shutter Cairo and Pioneer Elementary Schools at the end of the school year.  

The plan spearheaded by Superintendent Nikki Albisu puts students in the same grade in the same building instead of spread across five schools. Students will be at May Roberts, Aiken and Alameda next school year.

Protesting parents decried what they considered a lack of transparency about the plan, contradictory statements by Albisu and the district’s inability to produce records to substantiate public statements by Albisu and her team. 

Matt Stringer, a member of the Ontario School Board, dismissed the protesters in the board meeting on Monday, April 22. He told Albisu that he hoped it did not deter her and her team from working on reconfiguring the elementary schools. 

“We make decisions based on consensus,” he said.

Stringer said other school districts would overlook the issues the reconfiguration aims to address because it would be easier to do nothing. 

For their part, parents felt left out of the planning process. They held up signs that read, “we want to vote.” Under the guise of “doing what’s best for kids,” the district has moved forward with the plan. However, parents, with signs that read “our kids, not yours,” want to have a say.

Board member Blanca Rodriguez said it is “nice” that parents care enough about what is happening in the district. 

“I think it shows that they care,” she said. “A lot of times, we don’t understand, but we care.” 

Stringer said that he didn’t want Albisu and her staff to be discouraged. He said the community is also “a little confusing.” 

“It’s not, to me, the most kind, or gracious community in the world,” Stringer said. “And that also relates to productivity, healthy mind and those things.” 

Stringer said during his time on the board he has come to “truly believe” that the district is “forward-thinking, progressive.” 

“I think we take a sophisticated approach to this stuff,” Stinger said.  

Ruby Sanchez, a full-time working single mother with four kids, said working families’ concerns about how they are going to get their kids to school on time when their kids could be at separate schools are legitimate. 

Stringer’s comments about not being “the most kind, or gracious” underscore how Sanchez said she is already treated by some in the district. Hispanic and heavily tattooed, Sanchez said she “does not look like everyone else.” But, nonetheless, she and the other parents have a right to be heard. 

“I’m a good mom and I take care of my kids,” she said. “I make sure that I do everything that a mom is supposed to do. I feel like I should be heard, and what I say should be acknowledged.”  

Sanchez said every family’s situation is distinct, but the district appears to be treating everyone as if their circumstances are the same. 

Albisu said those standing in front of the district office could contact her or the principals of the schools their children attend. If those parents missed anything or had more questions, she or a staff member would fill them in on details, Albisu said. 

One protesting parent, Rosie Becerril, whose daughter is set to enter fourth grade next year and whose son will be in kindergarten, said encouraging parents to talk to the district or the principals of their school keeps the conversation behind “closed doors.” 

“Why does this need to be discussed behind closed doors?” Becerrill asked. “This simply needs to be clarified to the public, not behind a closed door. We just want answers.” 

Crystal Sanchez (no relation to Ruby), another parent who showed up to Monday’s protest, said the principal and staff at her kid’s school come off as if they’re reading from a script with canned answers that do not genuinely address her concerns surrounding transportation, school start times and having two kids at two separate schools. 

Sanchez emphasized that the administrators and staff at her children’s school are “really good” with her kids. Still, regarding her concerns surrounding the elementary reconfiguration, she’s told some version of how the change will be better for everyone, mainly teachers and staff. Administrators, she said, are not genuinely hearing parents concerns, she said. 

Albisu acknowledged that there were concerns about transparency regarding the reconfiguration, but she fended off criticism and said parents should know what is going on in their children’s schools. 

“There’s got to still be some responsibility to a parent that goes, ‘ I need to know what’s going on in my student’s education,'” she said. 

She said the district had 36 public meetings prior to the pandemic. However, under the previous plan, the district did not intend to close Pioneer and Cairo schools.  

Sometime in the fall, the district posted the plan to its website. Buried in the text, the district wrote that it planned to close Pioneer and Cairo schools at the end of the school year.

In November, the district held a hastily scheduled, poorly attended parent information meeting intended to roll out details of the new plan. Albisu and her team didn’t directly mention closing Pioneer and Cairo but instead said the plan utilized only three schools. 

She said enrollment at the two schools never recovered after Covid. 

Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations manager, said in a Thursday, April 18, email that the district does not have a plan for the school buildings at Cairo and Pioneer. She said the district anticipates that some staff might use the buildings for office space. She did not respond to follow-up questions about that staffing.

Ontario parent Ruby Sanchez holds up a sign outside of the main office of the Ontario School District on Monday, April 22. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)
A group of local parents staged a small protest outside of the main office of the Ontario School District on Monday, April 22. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)
Matt Stinger, an Ontario School Board member, during a February regular school board meeting. Stringer dismissed protesting parents Monday, stating that Ontario is not “the most kind or gracious community in the world and that this relates to “productivity, healthy mind and those things.”