Two former Twin Rivers Unified trustees seek to win back seats they lost in 2012

Two former Twin Rivers Unified school board members ousted by voters in 2012 are seeking a rematch with the trustees who won their seats.

Michelle Rivas and Roger Westrup are back to challenge incumbents John Dexter and Rebecca Sandoval, respectively, in the June 3 election. Former Del Paso Heights school board member Leila “Lanette” Robinson has joined the fray against Westrup and Sandoval as a serious challenger with labor support.

Twin Rivers has been trying to get its footing since forming in a 2008 merger of four smaller school districts that serve predominantly low-income neighborhoods in the North Sacramento area.

Current leaders say they are beginning to overcome the problems of past years, which range from aging buildings to a once-dysfunctional police force. Twin Rivers last summer hired a new superintendent, Steven Martinez, who has vowed to upgrade campuses districtwide, as well as a new police chief and other top administrators.

But former Twin Rivers board members vying to return say their efforts to improve the district were cut short when they lost their seats in 2012.

The 2014 election marks the first time that Twin Rivers trustees will be selected only by voters in the neighborhoods they represent. Though Twin Rivers had seats representing distinct areas, it allowed voters throughout the district to select each trustee.

The biggest battle may be in Area 2, which covers the neighborhoods of West Foothill Farms and North Highlands. Two years ago, Dexter bested Rivas, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Dexter, a 59-year-old public health manager, said he and his current board colleagues have had to deal with the problems left over from previous trustees. Current leaders, he said, have settled numerous lawsuits and have “spent almost two years putting the district on the right path.”

“We spent two years fixing the financial stuff and now we have to have the education piece done,” Dexter said.

But Rivas, who served on the board from 2008 to 2012, said in her candidate statement that progress the district made during her tenure has evaporated.

“John Dexter hasn’t done anything for education,” said Rivas, a 48-year-old health foundation director.

She criticized the district for cutting vocational programs and said she wants more options for high-achieving students, as well as an expansion of charter schools. She said Gifted and Talented Education offerings are “almost nonexistent” and wants to see International Baccalaureate programs.

Dexter has lived in the Foothill Farms area for 29 years, and all four of his children graduated from schools in the Twin Rivers Unified district. A daughter and sister-in-law are teachers in the district.

Dexter prides himself on seldom missing Highlands High School football and basketball games. The trustee said he spends 25 hours a week visiting schools and performing board duties.

“I just want the kids in the district to have the same education and same memories my kids had,” Dexter said. “That’s what it all about. Students don’t remember who the superintendent is, who the board members are ... They remember their teachers, the person working in the cafeteria. That’s what they remember.”

Rivas is a lifelong Sacramento resident who served on the Rio Linda Union school board before unification. One of Rivas’ sons attended Foothill High School, while another is attending high school in another district. Rivas said Twin Rivers Unified didn’t offer the program he needed when he enrolled as a freshman. “I have a record of supporting parental choice, and that certainly goes for my own kids,” she said.

Dexter said he is endorsed by the district’s teachers’ union, as well as its union representing classified employees. Rivas is supported by the Twin Rivers Police Officers Association.

Twin Rivers trustees have split their loyalties in the race. Board members Walter Kawamoto and Mike Baker support Dexter, while trustees Linda Fowler and Bob Bastian are backing Rivas.

Three people are vying for the Area 6 seat, which represents the communities of Dos Rios, Gardenland, Northgate and South Natomas.

In 2012, a similar three-way race resulted in Sandoval winning with 38 percent of the vote, while opponent Annette Emery took 34 percent of the vote and Westrup 28 percent of the vote.

In that race, Sandoval had labor support. But this time, the district’s teachers and classified unions are backing Robinson.

“I don’t think they were happy that I didn’t always vote the way they wanted me to,” Sandoval said.

Robinson calls herself a teacher advocate. “I want to make sure my child has a highly qualified teacher in the classroom,” she said.

The 51-year-old mortgage underwriter has lived in Del Paso Heights for 35 years, and her two children have graduated from Twin Rivers Unified schools. She says her 25-year experience in the financial industry and her time on the Del Paso Heights school board will benefit the district.

Robinson, who voted in favor of unification while on the Del Paso Heights school board, isn’t happy with the results. She said the Del Paso Heights district had technology databases in place to help guide instruction that are no longer intact. Resources, services and staff have been cut, she said.

The challenger said the school board needs to take more control of how the district is run, although she doesn’t blame the current administration for problems in the district.

“We’ve suffered from past management,” she said. “The board is responsible for setting the direction of the district.”

Sandoval, 61, has lived in the Sacramento area for more than 60 years. The retired state worker attended schools now situated in the Twin Rivers district, as did her daughter. Now her grandchildren are learning there.

“I have three grandchildren in the district, and I want to improve the schools,” she said. “I believe we now have the superintendent that Twin Rivers has been needing, which is the most important decision this board had to make.”

Sandoval, the current board president, said trustees are moving fast to “improve things that had to be corrected.” She said these things include ensuring the district remains fiscally sound, bringing technology into classrooms and keeping facilities maintained.

Westrup did not return The Bee’s calls. He is a Heald College instructor who served on the Twin Rivers board from 2008 to 2012 and served on the North Sacramento School District board before the 2008 merger.

Westrup, 55, said in his candidate statement that he will work to reopen and fully fund school libraries and increase career, technical and adult education courses. He also hopes to reopen Norte Del Rio High School as an International Baccalaureate magnet high school and foreign language academy.

Bastian, a Grant High School graduate and retired teacher, is running unopposed in Area 4, which includes the communities of Elverta and Rio Linda.

The three seats up for election will be four-year terms. The current trustees in Areas 2, 4 and 6 were elected to just two-year terms in 2012 so that Twin Rivers could stagger its elections as other districts do.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee