One member of the El Monte Union High School Board of Education called misconduct allegations against a former superintendent fired in 2016 a “witch hunt,” while another who voted in favor of terminating the ex-schools chief defended her action and praised the accomplishments of the current person in the role.
The differing points of view expressed by Board President Maria Morgan, a critic of Irella Perez, and Board Vice President Ricardo Padilla, were told to a Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing trial of Perez’s lawsuit against the city. Perez alleges gender discrimination and retaliation were behind her August 2016 firing after 17 months on the job.
Perez alleges that then-Board Member Maria-Elena Talamantes was one of her harshest critics, openly wondering how the plaintiff, a single mother, could be a good mother to her children and fill such a difficult job as leading a school district. Perez also alleges that despite being a woman herself, Talamantes preferred a man for the job.
But EMUHSD attorney Dennis Walsh has argued Perez’s firing was justified for a number of reasons, including her spending of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to send area voters — but not parents — a mailer in September 2015. The brochure described the district’s achievements and included quotes from board members at the time, Esthela Torres de Siegrist and Salvador Ramirez, prompting the Fair Political Practices Commission to fine the district, according to Walsh.
In his testimony, Padilla said he met Perez in 2015 while she was a member of the Whittier City School District Board of Education. He said they were two of many school board members who attended a conference in San Francisco to improve their abilities as leaders in the school communities where they lived and served.
Padilla said that although Perez had no previous experience as a superintendent or assistant superintendent, she impressed him during an interview for the El Monte job. He said she brought new ideas and energy to the job.
“I felt Dr. Perez was a good role model for our students given that she was an English-language learner,” Padilla said, adding that Spanish-speaking parents could speak directly to their new superintendent when they had any concerns they wanted Perez to address after she was hired in March 2015.
Padilla said Perez also showed young women in the community that they could achieve in the same way as Perez, who has a doctorate from USC graduate, if they were willing to work hard and set goals.
But Padilla said Talamantes and Perez did not get along and that nothing he did to improve their communications and understanding worked. Padilla said Talamantes bullied Perez and called her inappropriate names. Talamantes also made a false allegation that Perez was having an affair with a married member of the board, Padilla said.
Meanwhile, Perez did her best to be a good superintendent and was succeeding, Padilla said.
“She did everything but give us her first-born child,” Padilla said.
Padilla said the investigation into the allegations against Perez were unfair and unfounded.
“She did not do anything, this was a witch hunt,” Padilla said.
Padilla and de Siegrist were the dissenters in the 3-2 vote to fire Perez.
But in her testimony, Morgan said Perez’s firing followed a fair investigation and was justified. She said the atmosphere in the district has improved since Perez’s successor, Edward Zuniga, was appointed.
“Morale seems to be on the upswing,” Morgan said, adding that Zuniga has provided goals and a vision for the district that Perez never offered.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: