By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
For indignant defenders of ousted Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, the proof of betrayal was undeniable: On July 1, at her swearing-in ceremony, school-board President Genethia Hudley Hayes told an appreciative crowd, ”First and foremost, I am here to support our superintendent, Dr. Ruben Zacarias. I am here to allow him to soar and to fly and to, unfettered, lead this district into the next millennium. That is my pledge.“
Less than five months later, Hayes has, in fact, led the charge to dump Zacarias -- and rather unceremoniously at that. Last week‘s tumultuous board meeting ended with the school board voting to buy out his contract, but not before hundreds of Zacarias supporters haunted Hayes with her own words, taunting her verbally and passing out yellow fliers emblazoned with her earlier remarks.
The Zacarias multitudes might have been less shocked had they known what Hayes said in an interview with the Weekly on May 1, 1998, more than a year before joining the school board: ”The office of the superintendent refuses to insert itself in a progressive, productive and efficient way,“ said Hayes, who, at the time, had not even decided to run for office. Her comment concerned a conflict at Berendo Middle School near Koreatown, where she was serving as a mediator.
In that 1998 interview, Hayes recounted sending four letters to Zacarias and never getting a response or a return of phone calls, even after she told his chief of staff, ”I believe this thing is going to escalate and explode, and Dr. Zacarias needs to deal with it.“ When she approached Zacarias at a public event, ”he sloughed me off,“ said Hayes.
For Zacarias, the Berendo episode was a mere blip on the radar screen, one of many brushfires large and small that have raged among the district’s more than 650 campuses. His goodwill could not resolve the matter, and for him, the issues faded quickly into the background. But for Hayes, the Berendo experience was formative. Though Hayes and Zacarias knew each other before Berendo -- and attempted to work together after she joined the school board -- Berendo helped shape impressions of Zacarias and his administration that Hayes clearly maintains to this day, pointing her to the conclusion that Zacarias was incapable of reforming an unresponsive and floundering bureaucracy.
Berendo was a school divided against itself in 1997, when Genethia Hayes arrived as a mediator at the invitation of some clerical workers. It was a familiar community role for Hayes, the executive director of the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization.
Berendo is a LEARN campus, where decisions are supposed to be reached through consensus. Instead, the teachers union and the disenchanted clerical workers were at virtual war with principal Esther Rivera, who, in turn, found support from another contingent of clerical workers and a number of parents, some of whom she‘d hired to help patrol and manage the campus.
Tensions were aggravated when staff members accused the principal of having spent hundreds of dollars on books and periodicals for her personal use, among other alleged transgressions. In addition, an upper-level district administrator improperly disclosed to Rivera that teacher Pam Nelson, a union leader, had reported Rivera via a fraud hot line. According to Nelson, Rivera then threatened her with retaliation.
”When these people came to me . . . I didn’t sense that they were whiners or complainers,“ said Hayes of Rivera‘s critics. ”Just that they believed that money was not, in fact, being used for instructional purposes. Their concern was that students were being shortchanged. Their frustration was that they couldn’t get answers and were retaliated against when they asked reasonable questions.“
The dispute assumed ethnic overtones because most of the unhappy clerical workers are black, teacher Pam Nelson is white, and Rivera and her parent supporters are Latino.
Mediation efforts, through the district‘s LEARN office, got almost nowhere over six months. Hayes then progressed up the chain of command to cluster leader Marta Bin, Rivera’s supervisor. According to Hayes, ”Dr. Bin said, ‘You know, Esther Rivera was mentored by me. And we were both mentored by school Superintendent Dr. Zacarias.’ . . . I strongly suspect I was being told that not much was going to happen.“
When contacted by the Weekly last year, Bin said she did not recall the comment and that the term ”mentor“ overstated the matter; she was simply Rivera‘s supervisor, while Zacarias supervised them both, she said. Principal Rivera has denied any wrongdoing, while also declining to answer questions.
Interviewed this week, Hayes emphasized that her overall impressions about L.A. Unified have been forming since the 1970s, when she was a teacher. But she acknowledged that Berendo was a watershed in her dealings with Zacarias.
In 1998, after writing a critical op-ed piece, she got an immediate audience with the superintendent. ”He said if those comments by administrators were meant to imply that they were inoculated from critique, that was absolutely not the case,“ Hayes said this week. ”But I don’t think anything was done. The good intention was never followed up on.“