In a searing report, a civil grand jury slammed the Alum Rock, Calif., school board for running the district poorly and urged three trustees to resign.
"The 2017-18 grand jury found the board, controlled by a three-trustee block, has failed to meet its governance standards and fiduciary responsibility," the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury wrote in its report, released Thursday morning.
The grand jury urged Alum Rock Union Elementary School District board trustees Esau Herrera, Dolores Marquez and Khanh Tran to step down. It also said the board should terminate its relationship with Del Terra Real Estate Services, a firm whose dealings with the district have come under intense scrutiny in recent months.
And while the grand jury can't force trustees to comply, the report paints one of the most clear and complete pictures of the board's actions to date. On Thursday morning, frustrated parents were already vowing to wield it at the ballot box this November, when Tran and Herrera's seats will be up for a vote.
"We don't expect them to resign," said parent Jeff Markham, but "if you put it all together, the picture even to a casual reader looks pretty damning."
Parents and advocates in the East San Jose district, which serves some 10,000 students, have long criticized the board for failing to work in the best interest of children.
The report points out that after residents approved $265 million in bonds to repair and upgrade schools, the three-person bloc on the five-person board pushed through a decision to award Del Terra contracts as both program manager and construction manager on district projects, essentially allowing the company to oversee itself. And the board awarded contracts without competitive bidding to Del Terra, which had contributed to one of the district's bond measure campaigns. Ultimately, the report says, that move hurt the district and its students. Del Terra repeatedly failed to complete projects on time, and, at one point, it submitted bills for construction of a multipurpose building even though the work hadn't yet begun.
Aside from the board's sketchy relationship with Del Terra, the report spells out a number of problems with the behavior of the trustees themselves.
It says the trustees violated the Brown Act, a California law that mandates public meetings be transparent and open, by failing to give district Superintendent Hilaria Bauer proper notice that they were considering disciplinary action against her. The board has clashed with Bauer and repeatedly threatened to fire her, even as parents and community advocates say she's an asset to the district.
When the district's chief business officer tried to raise concerns about Alum Rock's relationship with Del Terra, Herrera threatened, "By the time I am done with you, you won't recognize your name," according to the report.
In an interview Thursday, Herrera denied making the threat, saying, "That is not true" and calling the report writers "politically motivated."
But trustee Andres Quintero said Thursday that was standard behavior.
"That's par for the freaking course," Quintero said shortly after reading the grand jury report. "They're always threatening the superintendent, threatening the staff...This isn't normal."
When the district hired a new general counsel, the report notes, the three-trustee bloc voted for a firm without interviewing candidates. Community members have repeatedly raised concerns that the counsel has ties to Del Terra.
"I believe the report writers are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law," Herrera said. "I've spent my entire adult life standing up and speaking out for parents and kids in East San Jose."
In developing the report, the grand jury members attended every board meeting from October 2017 through this June and visited every school but one in the district.
Herrera said he was still "reflecting" on whether to run for reelection this November.
Marquez did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In an email, Tran hit back at the allegations but did not respond to a question about whether he plans to resign.
"Their grand jury report is based on emotional and lack artifacts basd [sic] on concrete evidences and substances," Tran wrote. "As I see it, they are political arm for our political opponents."
Tran said he was not in office when Del Terra was selected to be both program and construction manager, and that he was away on business when contracts were renewed.
Tran also said the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which had looked into Markham's complaint against Del Terra and the three-board member bloc, had "cleared" them.
In a June letter, the FPPC wrote, "Based on a review of the documents received and obtained during our initial review of the allegations, the Enforcement Division will not open an enforcement case in this matter at this time."
But the FPPC has been far from the only commission or agency to look into the district. As the report lays out, the board's actions have been questioned by district staff, an independent consultant, the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the state's Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, the Santa Clara County District Attorney and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Last year, the S&P downgraded the district's credit rating to BBB+ from AA-, which will raise interest rate charges on future bond sales, meaning property owners in the district could face higher taxes.
"I think it just highlights all the dysfunction and chaos that this board majority has been responsible for the last two years," Quintero said of the grand jury report. "I couldn't agree more with their results and hopefully something good comes out it."
Quintero doesn't see the three embattled board members taking the report's recommendations seriously, however, putting the onus on voters to boot them from office.
"It's going to be up to voters to take to heart what they've been told," Quintero said. "It's been consistently bad behavior."