Oct 152012
 

FROM THE WEST SACRAMENTO NEWS-LEDGER — OCT 10, 2012 –

By Steve Marschke
News-Ledger Editor

  EDITOR’S UPDATE: The article below discusses a petition to nullify the appointment of Elizabeth Bagdazian to the local school board and force a special election to fill the vacant seat. Late this week, the Yolo County Elections Department verified that the petition contained sufficient signatures. On Oct. 12,, the Washington Unified School District released a statement thanking Bagdazian for her service and announcing that there would be a special election to fill the seat. Details of the election have not been announced, but Bagdazian is no longer a school board member.

A coalition of locals has submitted a petition that may cut short the school board term of Elizabeth Bagdazian and force a special election within the next few months to fill her seat. The petition was spearheaded by a group unhappy with how the Washington Unified School District handled the process surrounding their appointment of Bagdazian to fill a vacancy.

Matthew Hargrove, who spearheaded the petition, drive, said the petition is not about Bagdazian:

“It has nothing to do with the individual, it has to do with the procedure,” he told the News-Ledger. “I don’t really know who Liz Bagdazian is, and that’s probably the point. . . There are two years left on this term, and (the school board) could have chosen a more open procedure. They could have put this on the ballot.”

The chain of events so far:

Former board member Sandra Vargas on August 1 filed her resignation to the board effective at the end of August. Although she gave no reason – and hasn’t returned calls from the News-Ledger – it’s believed she moved out of the school district sometime in the past few months. A board member can no longer serve once he or she moves out of the district.

There is already a school board election scheduled on the November 6 ballot, with three seats up for grabs. But the effective date of Vargas’s resignation – August 31 – would have made it tough for the board to place the remainder of her school board term on the same ballot unless they started the process earlier.

The board accepted applications to fill the two-years-plus remaining on Vargas’s term and then, on Sept 5, appointed Bagdazian to fill the post. The decision occurred at a public meeting, although the names of the candidates weren’t released to the public in advance, and the district declined to provide the names to the News-Ledger before the meeting.

In the past few weeks, those angry with this “process” started a petition drive to overturn the appointment and put the board seat in front of the voters. On Friday, they turned in the petitions. If at least 345 of the over-600 signatures are confirmed as valid, Bagdazian’s term will be clipped and a special election will be called.

  A spokeswoman for the Yolo County Elections Department said that the school board could choose between a mail-only ballot that would cost WUSD about $100,000 and a normal process with polling places, which would cost $175-200,000. The election would have to be held within 130 days of the signature verification, which should be done in the next few weeks.

Is this worth the cost to the school district?

“Implicit in that question is the implication that I am costing the school district money,” he answered. “I resent the notion. That is wholly on the board. . . By not calling them on this, I would be enabling them to do this again in the future,” answered Hargrove. “Choices were made and folks were inactive in order to avoid putting this up for a vote. . . The vacancy was long in the making, and people really knew it was coming.”

Hargrove believes the district could have let the public fill the empty seat on the board in the November election, if they had wanted to.

Hargrove said he has two kids in the local public schools, so he has a stake in this issue. But he said he was part of a similar process several years ago when the West Sacramento City Council accepted applications to fill a vacated council seat – and the city handled the appointment much differently.

“That was an extra transparent procedure,” he said. “It was noticed (to the public), the names of the candidates were out there. I think there were nine of us. The appointment process was open to the public. It was televised. People that didn’t like me could come and ask questions of the candidates. I came in second to Wes Beers, and he was absolutely the best choice West Sacramento could make for the vacancy. Had we not gone through such an open procedure, there may not have been the same outcome.”

In contrast, said Hargrove, the district’s appointment process seemed “a bit contrived.”

School board president Teresa Blackmer did not return a request for comment. She is stepping down from her board at the end of her term this year, and has not returned other calls from the News-Ledger during this appointment process.

As for Bagdazian?

“I’m disappointed,” the new board member said. “I took the position for a reason. I knew I could step in. I was qualified. We all know there is a possibility of three seats being overturned in November, which could cause quite a bit of instability in the beginning. I knew I could be a stabilizing influence.”

“I’m very disappointed that, at a minimum, a hundred grand is going to come out of the (school district’s) general fund. Just prior to me getting on the board, they cut K-8 busing. That was devastating.”

Bagdazian said she hit the ground running after being appointed a month ago.

“In my short time as a board member, I’ve been to three-quarters of the schools, I’ve read all the contracts and read the budget,” she said.

She said that she witnessed paid signature-gatherers “harassing” voters in front of Nugget, and that “a person who applied (for the vacancy) and didn’t get the post was out with a petition,” going door to door and misrepresenting the facts.

Hargrove said most of the signatures were gathered in a “grassroots” fashion, but he engaged professionals as he approached the filing deadline, not knowing how many signatures had been inked on the various copies of the petition floating around the community. The paid gatherers were funded by an organization called “Move West Sacramento Forward.” (The News-Ledger wasn’t able to get further information on the group at press time.)

The petition drive gained steam from Mayor Christopher Cabaldon and his popular Facebook page, where he opined about the “improper action by the school board to evade a public election and appoint a school board member under a shroud of secrecy that is an embarrassment to what West Sacramento stands for” and called for people to sign the petition.

Hargrove said he is not in the “camp” of anyone else who wants that board seat, and he himself “has no plans” to run in a special election for it.

“I am not pro-any-other-candidate,” he said. “I am focusing on the process here.”

Bagdazian said she will keep doing her job until the petition is verified and she is removed from her post – and then she will decide whether to run for the seat in the possible election. But she wishes there would be no election, with its $100,000-plus price tag.

“This is a negative thing for our children because they’re the ones who are going to be impacted,” said Bagdazian.

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Copyright News-Ledger 2012

Steve Marschke

Steve Marschke