A former El Monte Union High School District superintendent struggled at times to retain her composure Thursday as she told a jury hearing her gender discrimination and retaliation suit that she was dedicated to helping children, but was bullied by a school board member and placed on leave without justification before being fired.
Irella Perez, who is also vice president of the Whittier City School District Board of Education, said she tried to reach out to Maria-Elena Talamantes, a member of the EMUHSD board from 2012-17, but to no avail. She said she is still unsure how their relationship soured after the plaintiff was unanimously approved by the board as the district’s superintendent in March 2015.
“I don’t know what happened,” Perez said of her problems with Talamantes.
But two other El Monte educators were also critical of Perez during testimony on behalf of the EMUHSD. Lillian Maldonado French, superintendent of the Mountain View School District — one of the feeder districts into the EMUHSD — said Perez once suggested that two of the other feeder districts had students that were more suited to math and science than Mountain View.
“It was awkward,” Maldonado French said.
Robin Torres, principal of El Monte High Union High school, recalled how Perez was unusually upset with remarks made during a public comment session.
“I was shocked,” Torres said.
But when she was asked by EMUHSD attorney Dennis Walsh whether she accepted any responsibility for losing her job, Perez answered, “Absolutely not.”
Perez has said Talamantes questioned how the plaintiff, a single mother, could be a good mom to her children while filling 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.
Talamantes has denied making such comments. Talamantes, who served on the board during the entire time Perez was superintendent, testified Wednesday that the board’s problems with the then-schools chief ranged from alleged improper uses of public funds to her inability to use proper grammar in communications — both internal and those sent to the community.
Talamantes said the board went so far as to recommend that Perez take a class to improve her writing, but their suggestion was ignored.
Asked by Walsh why she did not take a writing course, Perez replied, “That was just Maria-Elena trying to go after me.”
Perez said she received a positive evaluation in October 2015, but was put on paid leave in March 2016.
“I was placed on leave with no reason,” Perez testified.
Questioned by Walsh as to why she did not complain to the board or use other options available to her to complain about Talamantes’ alleged mistreatment of her after she was put on leave, Perez said it was not worth the risk.
“I was not going to keep my job if I did that,” Perez said.
Walsh has argued that Perez’s firing was justified for a number of reasons, including spending of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds to send a mailer to area voters — but not parents — 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.
But Perez denied any wrongdoing regarding the mailer, saying the board had requested its distribution. She also denied allegations that she dubbed herself the “ruler” and the “queen” of the district.
Perez said the district had no human resources director, so her only administrative option was to complain to Edward Zuniga, who was the assistant superintendent for human resources. But she said Zuniga was an ally of Talamantes and would likely not have been sympathetic.
Zuniga has served as the EMUHSD superintendent since Perez was fired in August 2016.
Perez, who said she emigrated from Nicaragua with $34 in her pocket, said the superintendent job paid her $200,000 annually, far more than the previous job she had as a school principal with a salary of $80,000. However, she said that after she was fired she had trouble getting work and toiled for a time with a nonprofit organization that paid her $12,000 a year.
She said she will soon start a new job with a salary of $100,000.
Perez said she once had so much faith in El Monte schools that she planned to have her children enroll in the district before she was fired. She said she did her best for the EMUHSD and that she always balanced her job with keeping the interests of her children paramount.
“I’m a mom, I’m the sole provider for my home, it starts and ends with me,” Perez said.
Final arguments and the start of jury deliberations are scheduled Friday.
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