Voters recall St. Helena school board members

February 24, 2010 6:36:18 PM PST
A dispute over school spending turned a wine country school district upside down on Wednesday. Voters in St. Helena recalled four out of five school board members in a special election.

With 90 percent of the vote in by early Wednesday evening, it was all but certified. In California there have been school board members that have been recalled in the past, but there has never been four members recalled in one district. According to the people, they have not seen anything this controversial in a long time.

It was front page news on Wednesday. The school board recall battle had ended. Four of its five members were sent packing. Whether or not it has divided the folks in St. Helena, it depends on who you ask.

"St. Helena needs, it does need time to heal. I guess we're news and that's OK," said superintendent Robert Haley.

Katherine Zelazny is one of the parents who led the recall.

"No, no, not at all. In fact, it brought a lot of people together," said Zelazny.

Supporters of the recall accused the board of voting to spend more on administrative fees and less and less in the classroom. For example, the previous superintendent was earning more than $250,000 a year -- twice the state average.

"What we were finding was that more and more the principals and teachers were coming to us for funding for things like library books, computers, things like that, that the school district should have been paying for," said Zelazny.

Only one of the ousted board members, Cindy Warren, responded Wednesday by saying, "Raising standards has ruffled some feathers. Any time a business or school district upgrades standards, it causes growing pains."

St. Helena has a huge property tax base and the district gets $14,500 per student. A district like San Francisco gets half that amount, $6,800 per student from the state.

Kevin Alfaro is the only board member not recalled. He is a newcomer.

"In light of how the state of California is doing, the economy, I was concerned about going forward and what happens if we have a budget cut?" said Alfaro.

But what bothered some parents the most was the appointment of the new superintendent. Instead of looking outside the district, the board hired the assistant superintendent.

"Often times people say well, you shouldn't take things personally. It's difficult not to when you are in the center of the storm. With that said, all I can do is work hard for this new board," said Haley.

Jeanne Devincenzi was one of the candidates voted in.

"I don't think it makes sense for anybody to jump in and fire anybody. I don't think that works at all. I think we have to be open minded and make decisions based upon what is best for our district," said Devincenzi.

On Friday, the register's office will certify the election and Devincenzi will be sworn in as early as Friday. The salary and the salary of the other school board members is $231 a month, plus benefits.