The Bonita Unified School District has been hard at work trying to solidify its important place in the La Verne and San Dimas community by setting standards for its employees. A big step in making the district work is the local School Board, headed by Dr. John Rieckewald, first-year superintendent, who is aided by Michelle McClowry, assistant superintendent of business, Lonnie McConnell, assistant superintendent of human resources, Lorna Horton, assistant superintendent of instruction, and Joe Gullentine, assistant superintendent of pupil services. The board is also guided by Board President Ed Jones, Vice President Diana Au and Board members Robin Carder, Robert Olander and Bruce Colburn, all of whom are active community members and act as a bridge between the district, parents and School Board.
by Robert Parry
photography by Scott Harvey
They filed into the room in an unassuming manner shortly after 7 p.m. The five were clad in ways which seemed to reflect their character-a plaid, outdoorsman’s shirt; business suits; an elegant, yet casual pants suit; and a “Bonita green” dress. On this Wednesday evening at the Bonita Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting, there would not be any dynamic decision making or personal judgment calls.
It has been a tough time, of late, at BUSD. Tawdry claims and packs of lawyers have not made sitting on the Board the happiest of ways to serve one’s community lately. But on this night, the agenda was blessedly free of such ugliness.
Ed Jones finished a turn in the president’s chair of the board in mid-December. With 7 years’ experience, he is the second-most senior of the Board members. A consultant for Ace Hardware Corp., with 26 years’ experience in the industry, Jones, 49, was motivated to run for the board in 1991 because the District lacked fiduciary controls. He says he came to a problem district which continues to have problems, but they are much-reduced in number and severity.
Of the 44 people in the room, nearly one-third are listed as official attendants on the agenda. They include five Board members, three student observers and six senior members of the district staff.
The meeting began like most board meetings do. President Ed Jones, like a medieval town crier, read aloud a list of disciplinary decisions made in a just-completed closed session. Reminiscent of “Les Miserables,” the culprit was identified by a number, his or her offense described and the sentence (expulsion from district campuses, suspension, etc.). With the corresponding vote, a young person’s life was altered — hopefully for the better.
With a year on the board, Bruce Colburn is its junior member, having been elected in November 1997. As part of the district finance committee , he has learned much in his short tenure. Colburn reports he has found more positives than negatives, and that some of the negatives have silver linings. He has also been pleasantly surprised by the totality of the parental and community involvement in the District’s education process. Colburn is a project manager for Southern California Edison.
The board is saluting employees who served well in the face of adversity. Dr. John Rieckewald, district superintendent, presents award certificates to staff members who aided a young student struck by a bus. Among those recognized are the bus driver, school staff members who gave the child first aid, and the district maintenance staff member who took pictures of the accident scene for insurance purposes.
Minutes later, five young girls clad in matching sweatshirts declaring, “Lone Hill Leadership,” address the Board about the need for additional rain shelters at their school. The staff and Board say they will look into the matter, and the girls skip out of the building, having learned a practical lesson about democracy, bureaucracy and perhaps gaining a dry place to sit as well.
Diana Au is dean of the board and has been re-elected twice since filling a vacant seat in October 1990. She says she has seen a heightened level of trust between employees and district administrators and is careful to keep in mind that her role is that of a policy maker, not a day-to-day manager. Au adds that her top priority is the welfare of children and their educational future. She resides in La Verne and is a speech pathologist in another district.
This is a special week for BUSD. It is Smudge Pot week. Two nights after the meeting, the Saints of San Dimas High School and the Bearcats of Bonita High School will have their own meeting on the Bonita gridiron to determine who will gain trophy possession. Student representatives from the high schools each slyly and yet prominently feature updates about their institution’s partisan activities for the week. Says the Bonita student: “This is spirit week. Actually, it is more of an Anti-Saint week.” Not to be outdone, the San Dimas representative announces that the school is well into “Anti-Green Week,” complete with the “Green Police.” Each discusses accomplishments of students in fine arts and leadership, as well as results from the just-past “Red Ribbon Week.”
But the game captures the most attention. Jones deadpans, “I think I’ve heard about that.” Au points out the spirited color of her dress while others make well-intentioned boasts about their favorite schools.
Bob Olander is a hard one to miss in the room. Though not physically dominating, he is stocky and broad-shouldered, and his facial expression shows that he means business. The Board members’ attention seems to naturally wander to him. When the agenda turns to the rivalry, his allegiance is clear, as it is on his home answering machine which proclaims, “Go SD Saints and Bonita Bearcats.” Olander came onto the Board following the 1993 election and is an Orange County businessman.
The crowd has dwindled to fewer than half its initial number of 30. A representative of Mt. San Antonio College wraps up a presentation on the community college’s programs for students and teachers. Some Board members stare intently while others read distributed handouts.
Just under 45 minutes into the proceedings, the first matter requiring input and deliberation from elected officials rolls up on the agenda. A new date must be selected for the December meeting.
Soon, the meaty issues start flowing. Dr. Rieckewald and staff present outlines of the revamped support program for new teachers. They discuss a plan for class-size reduction in the ninth grade. With new state funding, BUSD will be reducing freshman classes from an average of 32 students each to 20.
Robin Carder was elected to the board in 1995. She is known around the District and community for her tireless efforts as a dedicated mother and PTA member. It was this experience that motivated Carder to run for the Board in the first place. Her guiding philosophy is that the students “must always come first,” especially in matters such as budget cuts.
All seem at-ease with each other and are on a first-name basis. Colburn pulls out some staff-recommended decisions for approval. His concern (why another bus company is needed for a stand-by list of transportation options) is handled swiftly and approved within seconds.
By 8:12 p.m., the remaining audience consists of four people, including two union representatives. Carder declares, “This is the first time I’m proud to say I’m a member of the Board, because of the unions and their participation,” and adds that Dr. Rieckewald has much to do with that happiness.
Au says this has been her first period of fun on the Board in many years. She expresses relief that the District is faced with decisions on how to add staff; some of her first major decisions had been on laying off employees to save $5 million, a decision she said brought her to tears.
By 8:20, the meeting chamber is vacant.