Ontario School District members at a board meeting in June. From left: Mike Blackaby, Eric Evans, Blanca Rodriguez, Derrick Draper and Renae Corn. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
ONTARIO – Simmering disputes between top Ontario school officials and two school board members have erupted into the open, triggering a move to bring in an outside lawyer to investigate. An unsigned letter claiming to represent 14 of the Ontario School District’s 18 administrators calls for the resignations of board members Eric Evans and Derrick Draper. No administrator attached their name to the document, but much of it focuses on claims by Jodi Elizondo, the Ontario High School principal, that included detailed accounts of private meetings and email excerpts.
Mike Blackaby, a school board member named chairman last week, said the board would hire an outside attorney to help the board navigate the allegations.
Blackaby, Draper and Evans were the only school officials to comment. Board member Renae Corn responded to an interview request by saying she couldn’t comment until the new attorney was hired.
Board member Blanca Rodriguez didn’t respond to emails or phone messages seeking comments.
Evans, in an email sent late last week, said he didn’t know the “motivation behind the complaint letter.”
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He noted that it followed his suggestion “that the board explore a survey to identify any issues with organizational culture and community relations resulting in multiple failed school bond attempts and other issues I am observing in our school district. That suggestion has been met with resistance from school administration.”
Elizondo and Nicole Albisu, the district superintendent, declined comment.
“This is an unfortunate situation, but I am undeterred in my commitment to fulfilling my responsibilities as an elected school board member. I welcome a fair and objective investigation into the very serious allegations leveled against me,” Evans wrote.
With no school official discussing details of the allegations, the community is left with the sense of an intense fight for control of the school district just days before the start of the new school year for 2,400 students, scheduled to open Friday, Aug. 16.
That was evident at two recent school board meetings that drew unusually large audiences, sharp questioning of both board and district officials, and public complaints about school performance.
The division between the administration and the two school board members was fully on display in the 26-page complaint.
The complaint, making serious allegations about harassment and civil rights violations, was delivered to school board members earlier this month.
Blackaby said after the board received the letter they met with the school district’s attorney, Brian DiFonzo of Yturri Rose.
Blackaby said DiFonzo then declared a conflict of interest and recused himself because his wife, Shelby DiFonzo, is a school district employee.
Blackaby said the school board then reached out to the Oregon School Boards Association for guidance on how to proceed.
Blackaby said the letter was not shared with Albisu “because it wasn’t addressed to her.”
The complaint claimed that the “behavior of Eric Evans and Derrick Draper exposes the district to liability and is hurting student achievement and success.”
The conduct, the complaint said, has caused “significant damage” to the school district’s relations in the community.
Draper agreed the community’s view of the district was suffering, according to a May 30 email.
“The public’s perception of our schools is ultimately in the toilet right now,” he wrote. “Our relationships with people I feel are strongly suffering.”
Large portions of the complaint focus on relations between the high school principal and Draper. According to the complaint, Draper questioned the reassignment of a teacher at the high school. The document cited what it said were emails between Draper and Elizondo.
The document contains a long list of grievances, citing meetings and then offering an analysis that portrayed Draper as hostile and Evans as indifferent.
The document touches on a perception within the community that there is a toxic climate at the high school and Draper and Evans have been acting in concert with a faction of local parents to institute a residency requirement for administrators.
The document also lists 13 examples meant to show how Draper and Evans created an “unsafe and hostile work environment through intimidation and harassment” of Albisu, Elizondo, and one teacher.
Draper and Evans are also accused of civil rights violations “regarding the treatment of female administrators and Hispanic female administrators.”
The document goes into detail about other allegations against both men, including a June 3 meeting between Draper, Albisu and Elizondo.
The meeting was scheduled to “discuss the massive amounts of misinformation” in an email Draper sent Elizondo May 30.
According to the document, the meeting between Albisu, Elizondo and Draper quickly became heated.
The letter asserts during the session Draper “exhibited behavior intended to physically and professionally intimidate Jodi and Nikki. He repeatedly rose out of his seat to a partial standing position to enter the personal space of Jodi while screaming, pounding his chest and slamming his hands on the table.”
Draper said Monday none of those things occurred during the meeting.
“They are trying to make me look bad because they won’t answer tough questions,” said Draper.
The complaint asserted that when Elizondo later met with Evans, he defended Draper’s actions.
A proposal by Draper and Evans to survey school district employees to discern attitudes within the district also became contentious.
The document asserts Draper and Evans wanted the survey to demonstrate what school administrators “were doing wrong.”
The document also accused Draper and Evans of working at the behest of a faction of parents who believe the district is in disarray.
According to the document, the best evidence of the conspiracy was a June 24 school board meeting where several people spoke out against the district.
The meeting, the document asserted, was “clearly very organized and scripted, with a clear target on the high school administration.”
Draper, according to the document, helped “orchestrate” the public comments at the meeting.
Draper said he did not orchestrate the public comments.
“There are people with concerns. I don’t need to go around and tell people to do something for me. The voters voted. They voted the bond down. Why? That’s my question,” said Draper.
The complaint also outlines an encounter between Draper and high school choir teacher Alisa Smith last spring.
Draper confronted the teacher, who became “distraught and felt intimidated,” according to the document.
According to the document, Draper told Smith that she had “destroyed” the choir program.
Smith recently left the school district and lives in Colorado. Smith told The Enterprise last week she does recall the incident with Draper but didn’t realize he was a school board member.
She considered him an upset parent.
“The concerns were valid, but I thought it could be approached in a less intimidating manner,” said Smith.
The complaint said Draper’s “pattern of poor behavior” was evident earlier at Four Rivers Community School, a charter school in Ontario.
According to documents released to the Enterprise under a public records request, charter school officials in 2007 barred Draper from the school grounds and threatened him with arrest for trespassing if he violated the ban.
Chelle Robins, superintendent of Four Rivers, warned Draper in a letter dated Oct. 10, 2007, about the “disruptive nature of his conduct.”
Robins wrote that Draper’s actions were not new.
“Our staff have reported similar episodes in dealing with you,” wrote Robins.
The ban was later lifted, according to school officials. More recently, Ontario resident Don Dalton said he had a confrontation with Draper in June after a youth baseball game. Dalton said his grandson played on Draper’s youth baseball team.
“I was sitting in my car and Mr. Draper came off the baseball field, stuck his head in the car window and asked if I had a problem with him,” said Dalton.
Dalton said he subsequently asked Draper for an apology but didn’t get one.
A day later Dalton wrote an email to Draper and copied it to Albisu.
“By coming off the field, approaching my car and sticking your head in my window you caused a scene that should never have taken place,” wrote Dalton.
Draper did not want to comment on either incident but said they “were blown out of proportion.”
Some parents reached out to the Enterprise via email or on Facebook to express their anxiety.
Ontario parent Jana Youngblood said although she has not read the 26-page document, she doesn’t believe Evans has done anything wrong.
“I have known Eric my entire adult life. Not once would I ever think of him as chauvinistic or have anything against women in general,” said Youngblood.
Youngblood said she felt the document represented a “witch hunt.”
Ontario resident Megan Cook, who spoke out during a school board meeting July 22 said rumors of discontent at Ontario High School and elsewhere in the district have persisted for years.
Cook said she believes a survey of district personnel could help determine if there are problems and, if so, be a platform for solving them.
“When you hear similar things over and over it is hard not to pay attention to them. That is why I think a survey would be so pivotal,” said Cook.
Cook said she is more interested in determining if there is a problem and solving it, she said.
“Why not look at it and get it fixed?” said Cook.
Draper said a district-wide climate survey is a good idea.
“I cannot make good decisions without good information. I need to have a pulse on what the community wants,” said Draper.
Evans wrote in his email that he felt he was responsive to concerns raised by Elizondo and Albisu.
“I am confident that I have behaved at all times in a manner compliant with district policies and consistent with the expectations of a board member and of the board chair,” Evans wrote.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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