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.“
Zacarias did bring the feuding parties together in two ”Can‘t we all just get along?“ sessions. ”My approach was to say, ’You people have to rise above this, for the sake of students, to work this out,‘“ Zacarias said this week. ”It wasn’t like I was protecting anyone. The employees seemed to be satisfied with the efforts I made, but when they got back to campus they just couldn‘t get together.“ Hayes ”felt I was not responding to her. It turned out that was not so.“
Since then, the LEARN office and top district administrators have apparently given up. ”Things seemed to quiet down“ at Berendo in the months after the Nelson flap, said Assistant Superintendent Judy Burton. In reality, Rivera has simply won a war of attrition. First Nelson and then her successor as union representative left the school, accusing Rivera of targeting them for harassment. According to teachers union vice president Bev Cook, Berendo remains on its Top 10 list of schools with problem administrators.
Of the four unhappy clerical workers, one quit, and the other three have filed stress-related workers’-compensation claims against the district. One of them, Hazel Gyimah, said that the school refused to confirm her district employment with a potential landlord while she was on stress leave, almost rendering her homeless when she had to relocate. Another clerical worker, Linda Smith, subpoenaed Hayes to testify in support of her claim, which would have pitted the school-board president against district administrators. This potential embarrassment was avoided when the district agreed in August to let Smith see any doctor of her choosing, said Smith.
Incredibly, district officials have never released any definitive findings on allegations about the principal‘s use of school funds and property.
But if staff members at Berendo achieved little else, they did provide an education to Hayes, who perceived a school system where connections matter more than performance, where money can be mismanaged with no consequences, where parents are manipulated in turf wars, and where the welfare of students gets relegated to the back burner.
”Berendo for me was another one of those telling experiences,“ said Hayes this week. ”What you saw was no response. And that is a response.“