School Success Story Gone Wrong

Luther Burbank, a beacon of hope for San Jose's immigrant families, is a district in trouble

Tempers flared hotter than the 97-degree weather at a recent Luther Burbank school-board meeting in San Jose.

At an event that typically attracts less than five people, a standing-room-only crowd listened as teachers and parents vented their frustrations at the school board Tuesday evening.

Some of the commenters spoke in English, others in Spanish. All were angry.

"Morale has never been lower," said Janet Plant, this year's recipient of Luther Burbank's Teacher of the Year award, in an emotional speech. "Are you listening to me?"

Luther Burbank, a one-school district whose students are primarily from low-income immigrant families, has been commended for its climbing achievement scores. But in the past few weeks public attention has shifted from the school's academic performance to the conduct of its leadership.

Unrest has been building at least since November, when superintendent Richard Rodriguez was ousted by the school board. But a more recent development brought most of the audience to the meeting: the release of a 33-page report by a Santa Clara County civil grand jury that gave the school board a failing grade for its leadership.

The report asserts that the five-member board mishandled a number of personnel issues and possibly threatened retaliation against those who did not support them, among other things. Board president Antonio Perez is singled out as the primary contributor to the hostile environment; the report recommended that he resign.

But Perez, who graduated from Luther Burbank himself, says that he currently has no plans to leave his position.

"I have the best interests of the school in mind," said Perez. "The grand jury is wrong; they were misled."

The report is a dramatic endnote to a year that has seen the death of a popular teacher, budget cuts, and two additional grand jury reports as well as an administrative changeover.  

Interim superintendent Fernando Elizando said that the board would respond to the grand jury findings in the coming months.

"We're looking forward, not looking back," he said.

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