STOCKTON, Calif. — In a 5-2 vote during their special board meeting Tuesday, Stockton Unified School District trustees moved to suspend any public town hall meetings about this summer's scathing grand jury report, which found mismanagement and a lack of transparency at Stockton’s largest school district.
The vote followed nearly 20 minutes of discussion among board members and one person who filed a public comment card on the item.
In early August, the school district announced a two-hour long town hall meeting allowing members of the public to address board members regarding the grand jury report for up to three minutes.
The move to create the town hall was an action called upon by community members such as recent Stockton Early College Academy graduate and critic of the district’s board, David Sengthay.
“I was disappointed but not surprised,” Sengthay said following Tuesday's vote. “They were unable to take the criticism well and I think that their move to cancel any further town halls was, in fact, a way to prevent more negative press and to prevent that sort of publicity around the school district.”
The June grand jury report found poor business practices, an inadequate duty of care, and a lack of transparency at the district are pushing it towards a $30 million budget shortfall by the 2024 fiscal year.
The report said the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team has been brought in to conduct an audit of the financial issues faced by SUSD to avoid a potential state-ordered takeover by the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
SUSD has until Sept. 15 to submit a formal response to the grand jury.
Sengthay says by canceling any future town hall meetings on the report, the school district, also California’s 13th largest, is perpetuating issues outlined in the report.
“The decision to vote on these town halls was done during a special board meeting, which means it wasn't publicized well, and it was done during work hours -- at 1 p.m.,” Sengthay said. “The town hall was definitely a way for the public to get involved and stay engaged and now we're losing that sort of aspect."
Board president Cecilia Mendez made the motion to cancel any future town hall meetings saying the district should first formulate a response to the report and then allow the community to speak on the drafted response during the board’s next regular meeting, before the board votes to approve or revise the response.
The motion was approved by trustees Alicia Rico, Ray Zulueta, Scot McBrian and Zachary Avelar.
“No town halls, we’re not going to have any more town halls right now,” Cecelia Mendez said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We have to finish to respond to the grand jury, we need to do this, you know we have to do this."
Trustee Rico said if more town hall meetings were held, she would decline to participate due to a lack of respect from community members.
"I hear the video, the audio from the last town hall you guys had, it was nasty. There is no respect for people," Rico said. "We're not doing nothing against them. By the way, they come to the meetings and start saying a lot of things, this is not a community that we need. We need community to resolve these issues, not to make those issues worse."
Trustees Maria Mendez and AngelAnn Flores voted against the motion, citing calls from community members who requested the town halls and to discuss the report with board members before a response is drafted.
“This is not very transparent and not very respectful to the community voice,” Flores said during Tuesday's meeting. “By taking this vote the way we are in the motion for this vote, is in clear disrespect to the results of the grand jury report. This is exactly what they called us out on.”
In a statement to ABC10, SUSD Interim Superintendent Traci Miller said in light of the board's decision, she will begin hosting her own public meetings across the district.
“I will be hosting meetings with the public called Community Conversations. I am anticipating having fruitful discussions on matters of the school district,” the statement said. "I plan to host at the school district and in each of the 7 areas of the district. I am willing to put in the work to make improvements where needed.”
Following the Tuesday vote, Sengthay and other activists are calling for the five board members who voted in favor of canceling the town hall meetings to resign.
"We had some board trustees ridicule the public for only demanding transparency and respect saying it was too much," Sengthay said. "It's ridiculous for a board trustee to go public and say that we don't deserve them as a community when it's in fact the community that voted them in."
An online petition calling for the resignation of Trustees Cecilia Mendez, Rico, Zulueta, McBrian and Avelar has gained over 160 signatures in less than a day.
McBrian, Avelar, Flores and Maria Mendez's seats on the board are all up for election in November.
The district's legal consultant Jack Lipton said he believes the district's response to the grand jury report will be ready for consideration at the board's next meeting on Aug. 23.
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