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Board Members Remain Aloof Amidst Controversy
6-26 RIV School Board1
The only school board members to not attend a graduation this year are the same who havent been to the last three school board meetings the elusive John Mitchell (blacked out, second from left) and Steve Walker (blacked out, second from right). The remaining board members (from left) Egidio Jeep Oliveira, Ron Peterson and Elizabeth Meza hope Mitchell and Walker attend a pivotal meeting on Aug. 6. - photo by Photo illustration by IKE DODSON/THE NEWS

It’s becoming increasingly easier to spot Waldo in a dense crowd of cartoon figures than it is to find Riverbank Unified School District board members John Mitchell and Steve Walker at a district event they are expected to attend.

According to information obtained from the RUSD website and including school board meetings, workshops and graduations, Mitchell has missed 11 of the last 17 major district events that fellow trustees have attended. Walker was a no-show for eight of those and both have skipped the last three school board meetings.

Mitchell and Walker remain aloof as pressure mounts from inexplicable ‘no’ votes by the pair to stifle the hiring of assistant football coach and Riverbank native, Kirk Peterson. The two trustees are still unavailable for comment despite numerous attempts to reach them by the Riverbank News.

Members of the community have had similar luck.


Dodging The Public?

During the public comment portion of the June 13 board meeting, Riverbank High football coach Jim Oliver, RHS student Eddie Guardado and former RUSD trustee Jenni Avila took the podium at the front of a large crowd for an opportunity to confront Mitchell and Walker and plead their case for the acceptance of coach Peterson.

Mitchell and Walker were not present.

“It would have been great for them to hear our concern, our voice and our reasoning for why we want Kirk on staff, so it was frustrating when they did not show,” coach Oliver said. “I hope they are willing to accept the fact that they made a mistake and turn around and do the right thing.”

Trustees Elizabeth Meza, Ron Peterson and Egidio ‘Jeep’ Oliveira thanked the throng of community members gathered for making their appearance at the meeting.

“Basically, you are preaching to the choir,” Oliveira, the school board president, informed the group.

Community members wanted answers from Mitchell and Walker after comments by Walker to Kirk Peterson’s father, Ron Peterson, were published in the June 12 edition of the Riverbank News. In that story, it was revealed that Walker admitted he voted against Kirk Peterson in retaliation for Ron Peterson, Oliveira and Meza voting to reduce the benefits package that had earned him $7,620 a year to a $2,880 annual stipend.

Mitchell, who had his benefits cut from $16,455 a year to $2,880, also voted against Kirk Peterson to stall the hire, and could deliver the finishing blow to the highly regarded football coach on Aug 6.

Since board bylaws don’t allow for the removal of trustees until they miss meetings for three consecutive months, Walker and Mitchell can steer clear of the Aug. 6 meeting and remain on the board because they attended one on May 7 (when they voted ‘no’ on the second attempt to accept Kirk Peterson).

If Walker and Mitchell elect to dodge the Aug. 6 meeting, the only realistic scenario in which Kirk Peterson is allowed to join the RHS football staff will be quickly whisked off the table.


Alternative Solutions Eliminated

It was originally speculated by fellow board members that Ron Peterson, who has twice abstained from approving his own son, could simply elect to vote on the issue and resolve the conflict. This isn’t a strong possibility, considering RUSD trustee attorney Thomas Gauthier advised Ron Peterson to abstain on the matter, via a letter delivered by RUSD Superintendent Dr. Daryl Camp.

“The general feeling of the letter was that I should not vote on the issue,” Peterson said. “I did what I was told.

“I don’t know what else I could have done with that advice.”

Ron Peterson said he is unlikely to change his stance on Aug. 6, which leaves the trustees an unlikely option to force sudden policy change to limit their own power if Walker and Mitchell don’t attend or vote ‘yes’.

Oliveira has mentioned several times a wish for policy change on the board that would take the approval of new coaches out of the trustee’s hands and leave the responsibility with administrators on campus.

It sounds good, but board member Meza says it’s just not possible in terms of resolving the Kirk Peterson hire by Aug. 6.

“We can’t approve policy change on Aug. 6,” Meza said on Friday. “It’s impossible. You have to see how it fits into the agenda, have administrators look at it, have a first reading, and a second reading at a later date.”

Meza admitted that without a policy committee to expedite the issue, the late attempt to change the power of coaching approval may only complicate the matter.

“There are pros and cons to whatever you do,” Meza said. “If an administrator has all the power and they don’t want a coach, then we are back to where we are now.

“Riverbank is a small community and you don’t know what’s going to happen if somebody doesn’t like somebody else. It can be retaliatory either way.”


Talking Money

With Mitchell and Walker missing from recent meetings, Meza, Oliveira and Ron Peterson were required to agree wholeheartedly to get anything done.

The one thing all three have acknowledged is that Kirk Peterson is overqualified for the assistant coaching position he seeks on the RHS staff. Since all other coaches were approved immediately, Walker and Mitchell have the difficult task of justifying their votes.

One school board member said Walker and Mitchell may have claimed the no vote was an attempt to save the district money, but it’s a puzzling stance against spending that makes little sense.

Kirk’s potential stipend is nearly four times less than what trustee Mitchell accrued in benefits during a year-long policy that ends on July 1. The stipend could also fall short of what the RUSD is now being forced to spend to consulting attorneys on the matter.

“We are spending more money right now consulting (Thomas Gauthier) to make sure that we are covered, make sure there is no conflict of interest, make sure there is no discrimination lawsuit,” Meza said. “The coach in question is highly qualified — actually overqualified — and he’s already started working with the team.”

According to a list of assigned duty stipends released by the RUSD, football at RHS is allocated with nine stipends for varsity, junior varsity and freshmen coaches that total $36,905 a year. As a varsity assistant, Peterson is poised to accept a $4,247 stipend, but if he isn’t approved, that money will simply be designated to another coach who wasn’t going to be paid.

And the term ‘paid’ is thrown around loosely.

To be competitive in the ultra-strong Trans-Valley League, coach Oliver and Kirk Peterson are currently dedicated to a routine of around 24 hours a week during the eight weeks that make up Riverbank’s offseason workouts.

Oliver and Peterson agreed that once the dead period lifts on Aug. 5, between practice, preparation and weekend film viewing, they will devote around 40 hours a week towards the program.

Since the fall season ends Nov. 11 at the earliest, Oliver and Peterson (if accepted) will have each put in around 792 hours towards Bruin football. Not counting any football activity before May 27, that’s just over $6.70 an hour for Oliver, while Peterson is slated to make just over $5.36 an hour.

California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour.

It’s a paltry stipend to fight against, and it leaves Kirk Peterson in limbo if his approval doesn’t happen on the last available attempt to do so on Aug. 6.

But he may not stay off the sidelines for long.

“I have had four different schools talk to me (about joining their programs if he isn’t approved at Riverbank),” Kirk said. “It’s very flattering, but I am pretty committed to coaching here.

“I have put a lot of time in with these kids and I want to coach in the community that I was raised.”


Light At The End Of The Players Tunnel

Oliver has said he may quit his post if Peterson isn’t approved, but said he believes the school board will approve his assistant or resolve the issue, one way or another. The head coach was adamant about not holding a grudge toward Walker and Mitchell for their prior votes in both his June 13 statement to the board and during a June 20 interview.

“I would hope the two board members would reconsider their vote,” Oliver said. “I know sometimes we make decisions based on emotions at the time and don’t relax and think about what it means.

“It’s not like by not hiring Kirk they will save money.”

It’s not just the potential resolution that has Oliver’s spirits lifted. In an awkward and unexpected twist, the entire controversy could ultimately benefit Riverbank’s football program. At a time when football is rarely discussed and teams are seldom challenged, the Bruins have rallied together, unified and garnered community support.

“I think it is a great opportunity for us to stand by our program, rally together and show support,” Oliver said. “I think that in a weird way, this whole situation is going to benefit our program.”

Guardado, the linebacker who spoke during the June 13 board meeting, was awash in emotion when asking Mitchell and Walker to reconsider their votes.

“Coach Peterson is a Bruin,” Guardado said amidst tears. “He stays late at night after practice to work with me.

“He’s a great man, a great coach and he deserves to be a Bruin until the day he dies.”

All board members present spoke admirably of Guardado after his comments.

Meza said she was proud of the Bruin senior for the statements he made, and said students like Eddie will help turn the situation into a positive outcome for the district.

“This whole situation has drawn more attention to the school district’s business and I see that as a positive,” Meza said. “At least half of the students didn’t know what a school board was, but now they may know what we do.”

Meza has attended every RUSD graduation since she was elected to the board in 2009, including when her husband was admitted to the hospital with a broken nose. She’s a constant sight at board meetings and wears her devotion to the district on sleeves she is always rolling up.

“The voice of the community will be heard,” Meza said. “I have heard rumors that parents and students will show up again at the Aug. 6 meeting and strengthen their voice in the community.

“They voted board members in and they can vote them out.”

According to Meza and Oliveira, both the vote to approve Kirk Peterson and the suggested policy change will be placed on the Aug. 6 agenda. Since it’s the last chance for Kirk to be approved, it is clear that Oliver and company will be on hand to support the assistant.

Spotting Mitchell and Walker at the meeting is the only question mark.