Elk Grove News

Elk Grove schools losing 2 longtime board members

Jeanette Amavisca won’t be on the Nov. 4 ballot. Neither will Priscilla Cox.

The two women, with a combined 53 years of service on the Elk Grove Unified school board, say they decided to retire to spend more time with their families, but acknowledge dissension on the board contributed to their decisions.

“It’s been challenging for the last year and a half,” Cox said.

It was nearly two years ago that Steve Ly won the seat of appointed incumbent Jake Rambo, Carmine Forcina took the seat of appointed incumbent Alfred Rowlett, and Tony Perez took the seat of longtime board member William Lugg, who retired.

The division on the board, which has often found Cox and Amavisca on the losing end of 4-3 votes, has become apparent to residents who listed it in a recent survey as one of the primary issues a new superintendent should be aware of when coming to the district. The district is in the midst of a search for a new leader to replace retiring superintendent Steven Ladd.

Cox said she hopes the new board, with veteran Chet Madison – elected in 2000 – “will work as a team and move our district forward.”

The tumult is “experience vs. inexperience,” said Cox, 65. “In my 20 years we’ve never had so many new board members. Everyone had at least two terms at one time period. That experience is really invaluable.”

She is happy to step aside for Beth Albiani, who is running unopposed for Area 5.

Appointed board member Bobbie Singh-Allen also is running unopposed in Area 4.

A lot has changed on the Elk Grove Unified Board since Amavisca, 65 – one of the longest serving school board members in the region – started in 1981. In the past, board members often ran without opposition. In 2010, Cox and Amavisca were unchallenged. In 2008, 2006 and 2004 only one challenger emerged to challenge incumbents. In 2002, three hopefuls made attempts at seats. None succeeded.

In 2010, then-board President Amavisca said she believed there were two reasons there were seldom candidates for the school board: “The public is satisfied with the district, and no one wants the job.”

This year, four people are vying for her seat. The candidates are educator James Letoa, business security consultant Tim Gorsulowsky, teacher Crystal Martinez-Alire and manager Nicholas Webster.

Board members in the 62,000-student district receive $750 per month and the same health benefits provided to school district employees, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.

Amavisca said she tells new board members to expect to put a lot of time into the job. She spends between 10 hours a week in the summer to 40 hours a week during the school year visiting schools, attending awards ceremonies, sitting on school committees, reading emails from constituents and reviewing board agenda packets.

The longtime board member says she has missed only a handful of graduation ceremonies – one year racing between ceremonies at Arco Arena and a ceremony at a district continuation school. “ ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ still gets me,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

She also has spent the last few decades donning her Mrs. Seuss costume and reading “The Cat in the Hat” to elementary school children in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

Legally, board members have to attend only two meetings a month, Amavisca said. “But if you want to do the job well you have to get out.”

New board members also will have to deal with a spurt of growth that is expected to require 54 new schools – 40 elementary schools, seven middle schools and seven high schools – over the next few decades. A recent update to the school district’s master facilities plan shows a projected student population of 110,000 in 20 years. The district boundaries include the city of Elk Grove, as well as sections of south Sacramento and Rancho Cordova.

But the new board isn’t likely to experience the housing boom Amavisca and Cox dealt with during their terms. “In my tenure, when I came on there were 35 schools; there are 64 now,” Cox said. “We were building two to five schools a year for 10 years.”

The recession eventually slowed building, and the board agenda was no longer crammed with plans for new schools. Instead, Cox, Amavisca and other trustees had to decide how to make $110 million in budget cuts over five years. “It was the most difficult time in my 20 years,” Cox said. “There was nothing ever good about having to do layoffs because of the budget.”

The trustees also have seen their share of controversy during their terms. The biggest was a suit filed by parent Michael Newdow, who said reciting the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the First Amendment. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Newdow lacked standing to file the suit because he didn’t have custody of his child. Both trustees traveled to Washington for the case and consider the experience the most interesting thing that happened during their tenures.

They have mixed feelings about leaving the board.

“I’m kind of excited,” Amavisca said. “I feel like I have a big weight off my shoulders, but then I’m sad.”