The Montebello Unified School District’s former chief business officer, testifying Monday in trial of a lawsuit brought by two other ex-MUSD officials who allege they were fired in 2016 for exposing political corruption, denied any wrongdoing and defended his actions in trying to make the district fiscally sound.
Ruben Rojas said he had also hoped to upgrade the district’s aging facilities and raise its low student achievement standards. He said he left a good job in the governor’s office and would have stayed there if he knew in advance the opposition he would face from the plaintiffs, ex-MUSD Superintendent Susanna Contreras Smith and former chief financial and operations officer Cleve Pell.
“The district was within six months of being bankrupt,” Rojas told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury tasked with deciding the lawsuit.
Rojas said he used a drone to make a video documenting the poor condition of the district’s buildings, many of which he said lacked Wi-Fi service. He also said bond money that should have been used to upgrade facilities was instead being utilized for pay raises and overtime for some district employees.
“How do you think things are not going to crash on you years later?,” Rojas asked.
Rojas told the jury that the Los Angeles County Board of Education was happy he took the MUSD job in July 2015.
“Now we have somebody who is going to take action,” Rojas said the county board members told him.
Smith and Pell brought the lawsuit in June 2017, alleging they are whistleblowers who lost their jobs for coming forward about alleged misconduct by the Board of Education and Rojas. The suit alleges that Rojas, who was in charge of the district’s $300 million budget, “was directing lucrative MUSD contracts to cronies in violation of public contracting laws.”
“Now they were really getting desperate here with this conspiracy thing,” Rojas said of the corruption allegations.
According to the lawsuit, Contreras Smith put Rojas on leave and she and Pell brought their findings to the board, but those efforts were thwarted when the trustees “sought to cover up the web of corruption surrounding Rojas, engineered his return from leave by false pretenses and then voted to terminate Contreras Smith and Pell in retaliation for their whistleblowing.”
Rojas was hired by the MUSD at a time when the district had begun efforts to upgrade its aging school facilities. But as time went on, the plaintiffs allege they found out that Rojas was “an individual who had crisscrossed California looking for school districts to exploit for his personal benefit.”
Within a year of his hiring, Rojas awarded many lucrative MUSD contracts to people favored by him, violating the state’s Public Contract Code and other laws in the process, according to the complaint. But instead of heeding the concerns of Contreras and Smith, the board placed both on leave in 2016 and fired them a month later, according to their lawsuit.
Rojas, who was himself fired in March 2017, had kind words for the Board of Education and its decision to hire him in the first place.
“The board had it in their heart to really, really fix things to at least give the children a fighting chance,” he said.
Rojas was originally a defendant in the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs later dropped him from the case.