The sentiment of a powerful statement from Egidio ‘Jeep’ Oliveira echoed across the narrow walls of the Riverbank Unified School District school board chambers with the clamor of a marching band.
In 231 words, the RUSD Board President took his brush to a colorful picture of school board dissent and applied thick coats of black and white paint.
When the applause following his remarks faded, fellow trustee Elizabeth Meza captured the moment with a somber call for votes.
“With that Mr. Oliveira, if there is no other comment, I would like to make a motion to approve.”
“I will step down as president and second,” Oliveira replied. “I have a motion and a second. All in favor — Aye.”
“Aye,” added Meza.
The ensuing pause will translate into a routine gap between lines of text in the reported minutes of the Aug. 6 school board meeting, but attendees will not soon forget the silence that followed Meza’s confirmation of aspiring Riverbank High football coach, Kirk Peterson.
They won’t forget the subsequent vote from board member John Mitchell either. Of course, Peterson’s presence on the Bruin sidelines will have a lot to do with that.
After an emotional appeal from RHS head football coach James Oliver, requests by fellow community members and the frank words of both Meza and Oliveira, Mitchell halted a movement against Coach Peterson in a stunning change of heart. After his initial vote to abstain on Tuesday was met with confusion, Mitchell ultimately switched to a ‘yes’ vote on the final attempt to approve Riverbank’s offensive coordinator for duties on the Bruin football staff.
Mitchell would leave the meeting amidst a clamor of cheers from the crowd. The festivities soon spilled outside, where Bruin coaches shared their elation with a collection of players, parents and other once-troubled Riverbank residents in the atmosphere of a post-game celebration.
“It’s almost like a victory on the field,” Oliver said afterwards. “We fought a tough fight, had to go through some tough situations and we came away with the win.
“It’s like coming into the season with a big victory.”
The victory appeared in jeopardy after discouraging statements by RHS special education teacher Jim Boling were reiterated by Mitchell in his only address to the crowd.
“Very few of you are going to be a (San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin) Kaepernick, be a multimillionaire before you are 30,” Boling said to RHS football players while at the podium. “Trust me. I promise you it’s not going to happen. One-in-a-million.
“You need to be just as passionate about your education.”
Boling’s sentimentality of education over athletics was a theme he referred to often in his statement; one Mitchell clung to during his own pre-vote comments.
“Teachers get laid off and we don’t see people down here, we don’t see no parents, we don’t see no students en masse,” Mitchell said. “All we see is we got to fill a hole for these students, for these teachers.
“I don’t understand why we have that drive for this. Seems to me the educational program is backwards. I hope down the road you will understand what will occur tonight.”
Mitchell also explained his absences at 13 of the previous 19 major district events.
“Three years ago my wife of 30 years passed away,” Mitchell said. “Dec. 24, 2012 my dad died and now my mother, as I told you guys earlier, is very ill.
“So that’s why I have not been down at the meetings, that’s why I haven’t been to graduations. That’s why I haven’t been down to events. My family is my priority.”
Mitchell had missed the previous four school board meetings, three of them also not attended by fellow trustee Steve Walker. Together, the two had moved to prevent Peterson’s hiring since it was first brought before the board on Feb. 19.
That same meeting played host to a pivotal vote where benefit packages for the only two fund-accepting board members (Mitchell had received $16,455 and Walker $7,620 from the yearly plan) were reduced to a $2,880 annual stipend.
Meza, Oliveira and board member Ron Peterson all voted for the cut, despite protests from Mitchell and Walker. Afterwards, Mitchell left the meeting, but Walker stayed to vote against Ron Peterson’s son, Kirk Peterson, in a vote that singled him out from the list of approved coaches.
Since Ron Peterson was forced to abstain by the board attorney, Walker’s vote postponed the expected approval to a May 7 meeting, where both Mitchell and Walker voted “No”.
When Ron Peterson asked Walker why he denied his son’s approval, Walker was overhead responding “You voted against my healthcare and I voted against your son.”
Walker wasn’t at the Aug. 6 meeting, citing a personal circumstance, but Mitchell wasn’t immune to allegations that a grudge against Ron Peterson had drawn votes against his son.
Since board members agreed upon a budget that included nine set stipends for varsity, junior varsity and freshman football coaches totaling $36,905 a year, any suggestion that Peterson’s shunning was a stand for education, laid-off teachers or furlough days proved bewildering. Peterson’s opportunity to receive $4,247 at an hours-worked-rate far below minimum wage was a completely independent issue.
Oliveira didn’t leave room for assumption in that regard.
“You know, often things are not as complicated as they seem, they are actually very simple, but then we like to complicate them with other issues,” Oliveira explained to the crowd. “I don’t really know Kirk Peterson. I think I met him maybe once at a basketball game — maybe twice — but I know he’s qualified.
“This isn’t about his qualifications. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only disqualifying factor is his DNA.”
Oliveira’s remarks drew the ovation that preceded Meza’s motion for a vote. After the two board members who voted “yes” on every vote to approve Kirk Peterson announced their “ayes”, Mitchell quietly said “abstain, which is a yes vote if you guys don’t know.”
The issue seemed settled for a moment, but then Meza halted proceedings to clarify the abstention’s definition.
“You’re mistaken,” Mitchell replied. “The majority of the board gave two votes and the abstention goes with the votes.”
Meza laughed, then asked: “So do you want to not complicate things and just say yes?”
“No, because they made it personal,” replied Mitchell. “You all made it personal for reasons I don’t understand.”
District Superintendent Dr. Daryl Camp interjected to clarify that the board attorney had advised the need for a majority of affirmative votes from the full school board.
When Meza clarified that Mitchell’s abstention would not approve Kirk Peterson, Mitchell pulled back his abstention, voted “yes” and then abruptly left the meeting.
His departure did little to stifle a reaction from the Bruin crew that coach Oliver said nearly brought him to tears.
The retired law enforcement officer and former Bruin athlete told board members that he trusts Kirk Peterson to have his back, like he would a partner on the job. He said he was close friends with the family after being mentored by then-Coach Ron Peterson at Riverbank High.
“Coach Peterson was my favorite coach and I always try to pattern my coaching techniques after him,” Oliver said. “The only thing he asked was that I pass it on to his son.”
Now Oliver can.