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Elephant in the boardroom: Paso Robles school district trustee appointment process gets too political for some 

click to enlarge PARTISAN LEANING Paso Robles Joint Unified School District appointed a new school board member, but some say it was partisan.

Cover Images From Adobe Stock

PARTISAN LEANING Paso Robles Joint Unified School District appointed a new school board member, but some say it was partisan.

School boards are nonpartisan governing bodies. But in Paso Robles, that doesn't prevent some board members from getting political.

"Nonpartisan office means you don't elect based on Democrat or Republican," Chris Arend, Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board president, told New Times. "But it is definitely a political office."

Arend didn't shy away from expressing his political views when the Paso school board held interviews to fill an open trustee position on Dec. 7. He put it straightforwardly: "I would rather have a conservative candidate on the board than a liberal board member," he told New Times.

During the Dec. 7 meeting, each trustee gave their top two choices, and from there the board whittled the list down to two candidates: W. Frank Triggs, a retired pastor and church business manager, and Adelita Hiteshew, a district paraeducator with three kids at district schools. Triggs ultimately won majority support of the board, with a 4-2 vote to appoint him.

As the board deliberated on Dec. 7, Arend talked about why he didn't support Hiteshew for the appointment.

"She was obviously in favor of introducing critical race theory," Arend said, to which multiple board members murmured, "She never said that."

Critical race theory (CRT) was a hot topic for Paso and districts across the country in 2021. Paso spent months discussing CRT after Arend drafted a resolution that would ban teaching the theory in the district. The school board banned teaching it on Aug. 10, except for including instruction that focuses on the theory's flaws.

"It was clear when she criticized the fact that we adopted the ethnic studies course but trimmed it down: The main trimming we did on the ethnic studies course was CRT," Arend said.

Prior to the district's discussions over whether to ban CRT, Paso debated the curriculum of a proposed ethic studies elective course at the high school. Hiteshew told New Times in an interview that her views on the ethnic studies course had nothing to do with critical race theory.

"I specifically mentioned this course because the board set forth requirements to hear the course, and those requirements were met," Hiteshew said. "Then they went through and read the course and said, 'Nope you're pushing too far.' [They] asked for further paring down of the course, and then ultimately begrudgingly only agreed to offer the course for a year, only to 11th and 12th grade students."

As far as critical race theory goes, Hiteshew said, "anyone who's arguing for an ethnic studies course is not even remotely speaking to CRT."

click to enlarge PASO POLITICS Adelita Hiteshew, pictured, was one of the candidates being considered to fill the Paso Robles school board seat vacated by Jim Reed. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ADELITA HITESHEW
  • Photo Courtesy Of Adelita Hiteshew
  • PASO POLITICS Adelita Hiteshew, pictured, was one of the candidates being considered to fill the Paso Robles school board seat vacated by Jim Reed.

"We would just like a full picture of people of colors' influence on our history," Hiteshew continued. "Anything that I was arguing in regards to the ethnic studies course was that it was not a fair opportunity for that course to be successful."

Arend didn't stop at criticizing Hiteshew's views—he also made comments about the way she expressed them.

"She tended to be kind of flowery, a bit emotional, in her answering the questions," Arend told the board on Dec. 7. "The decisions we have to make here, maybe it's just me, but I think you've got to make them, frankly, ice cold and without emotion. You've got to look at the reality of the situation and not in feelings."

Hiteshew said this comment in particular has stuck with her in the days since the interviews.

"Hearing any woman referred to as emotional, to keep them out of a position of power, is unreal," Hiteshew said. "To hear that said about yourself while your daughter is listening? It's infuriating."

She said Arend's comment took things too far.

"Simply, 'This is not the candidate for me,' would have sufficed," she said. "But Mr. Arend's emotions got the better of him, and he chose to use what I can only refer to as a dog whistle to other members of the board who might agree with him, that a woman cannot sit on that seat who is not in agreement with them, because she would be 'emotional.'"

Other board members expressed support for Hiteshew.

"It wasn't just that she was spoken out of emotion, it wasn't that she was spoken out of passion, it was informed passion," board member Nathan Williams said at the Dec. 7 meeting. "She does have the commitment to the community, I've seen it over the years personally. ... She recognized that we will all have our own personal biases, as we all do, [and] the importance that we need to put that aside as best as we can."

Caitlin Vierra, another board hopeful who was interviewed for the appointment, said she found the process overly driven by political leanings.

"I watched the deliberations when they were deciding on the question set," Vierra said. "I was disappointed at that point, realizing that the questions weren't really going to be about items related to running the school board. It was clear that they were more political based. ... I didn't feel like they were even asking questions based on merit."

Hiteshew was among board member Chris Bausch's top two picks for the appointment.

"I think she has great insight as to what's going on within the district," Bausch said. "I think she would have fresh perspective on solutions. I hope she runs again."

However, Triggs was Bausch's other top pick, and he said he stands by the board's decision.

Bausch pointed to the fact that Triggs ran for the board in 2020, and though he didn't win a seat, he pulled more than 5,000 votes. The appointed board member will fill resigned board member Jim Reed's seat, and Bausch said he thinks Triggs is the right match for that spot.

"It's a very rare situation that we have to vote for a replacement trustee. The voters, the public, those are the ones who should be shaping the diversity of the board," Bausch said. "I think the community let us know that they wanted someone like Jim Reed on the school board. I think Frank Triggs is closer to representing Jim Reed than anybody else who applied."

Triggs said he's looking forward to helping the board fulfill the mission of the district: to give kids a safe environment that empowers them to learn.

"I came close but was not elected to the board of trustees," Triggs said of the 2020 election. "When an unexpected opening came, I thought with my skills in accounting, public speaking, and general care for people, I could contribute to the excellence of the current board of trustees."

Triggs said he thought the appointment process was fair and open. As far as politics go, Triggs emphasized that it's a nonpartisan office.

"It would be inappropriate to make it about partisan politics," he said. "All the board members bring their unique thoughts and beliefs to bear on decisions. That is how a democratic republic works."

In 2022, the board will move to by-trustee area elections, rather than at-large, as the district is finalizing trustee area boundaries after the threat of a lawsuit for violating the California Voting Rights Act. Bausch said this could have an impact on who gets elected next.

"It depends on the candidates who choose to run and how much traction they have within their own district," Bausch said. "Will that be a good thing or a bad thing? Again, it depends on what your views are. But it's the public that has to make that decision—not the school board."

Hiteshew said she isn't sure yet if she will run for the board next year. But either way, she plans to stay involved.

"There is power in the community. We need to harness that power by getting registered and to the polls to make the changes that need to happen," Hiteshew said. "I want to see board candidates come forward who care about the students first.

"I [want] for people in Paso Robles to see that the school board, or any position of power, is open to all of us." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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