By Terry Miller
Pasadena Unified School District is facing a discrimination lawsuit by local civil rights attorneys Dale Gronemeier and Elbie J. Hickambottom, Jr., arising from the selection of controversial Madison Elementary School Principal Juan Ruelas.
In a letter this past Friday to Superintendent Brian McDonald, Gronemeier & Associates stated, “Your decision to unilaterally impose Juan Ruelas on the Madison community and to thumb your nose at teacher and parental input has been met with a firestorm of resistance and criticism, and we are doing our due diligence preparatory to filing a lawsuit on the ground that decision is discriminatory against the Latino students, faculty, parents, and community that is served by Madison.”
Madison Elementary School has been in turmoil since McDonald announced on June 15, 2015, that Ruelas was Madison’s principal without the usual input from a site selection committee composed of teachers and parents, which interviews candidates and recommends three candidates from whom the superintendent selects one. That process was not used for Madison but was used for the other four PUSD elementary principals selected during this and the past academic years – Sierra Madre, Altadena, Willard and McKinley. Madison is the most heavily Latino school in PUSD with 95 percent Latino enrollment; none of the other schools come close to that percentage of Latino students.
The attorneys represent Pablo Alvarado, a resident living near Madison and the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Community Council for Empowerment and Justice at Madison (“CCEJAM”), an organization of parents, teachers and community members who have been challenging McDonald’s imposition of Ruelas as Madison’s principal. The attorneys’ Friday letter to McDonald protested PUSD’s failing to produce even a single document in response to an Oct. 6 Public Records Act (“PRA”) request for the documents that relate to or concern the decisions to use selection panels for Sierra Madre, Altadena, Willard and McKinley elementary schools and refusing to use a selection panel at Madison. In response, PUSD produced only records concerning the selection panels interviewing of candidates but no records concerning the decisions on using or not using selection panels. The attorney letter characterized the district’s PRA response as “blatantly fraudulent” and “stonewalling,” adding that the documents his clients seek “are relevant to whether PUSD has violated the constitutional rights of the students, faculty, parents, and other stakeholders in the Madison community to equal protection of the laws by discriminatory conduct which denies participation in principal selection to the highest-Latino-populated school in the District while extending that right to participate to the same stakeholders in the lower-Latino-populated schools in PUSD. Your differential treatment of those stakeholders on the basis of
Latino ethnicity establishes a prima facie case of impermissible discrimination. The Public Records my clients seek are centrally relevant to whether those decisions have bona fide educational justifications or whether they are pretextual rationales that mask the operation of ethnically-discriminatory bias.”
Hickambottom is the son of Elbie J. Hickambottom, the deceased longtime member and president of the PUSD Board of Education – the PUSD Board room is named after the senior Mr. Hickambottom. The junior Hickambottom said, “It would be an anomaly if I am forced to sue PUSD for discrimination after my dad fought so long for racial equality and PUSD honored him by naming the Board room after him. But Superintendent McDonald has made a mistake by imposing Ruelas through a discriminatory process, so my dad’s fight for racial equality must go on by my fighting for the Madison community’s right to equal treatment.”
Hilda Ramirez Horvath of PUSD told Pasadena Independent in an email that “Principal Ruelas has held weekly ‘Coffee with the Principal’ to foster collaboration and communication with Madison families. Parents and teachers from Madison Elementary School will assist Principal Ruelas in the selection process of their new teachers, which will follow district guidelines.”
Superintendent McDonald addressed this letter, printed in full below, to the community on June 15:
“Dear Madison Elementary Community:
“As you may be aware, Juan Ruelas has been named Principal of Madison Elementary School. It has come to my attention that there is concern among some in the community about the process in which we went about to replace Carmen Serrano, who will be moving to the central office for a new position.
“While it is true that in many cases we do convene panels to interview principal candidates, we chose not to take this step when the vacancy occurred at Madison because I believe Juan Ruelas is the best possible candidate for Madison. Mr. Ruelas comes to Madison from Roosevelt Elementary, a school with many of the same demographic characteristics that Madison and what’s more important is that Mr. Ruelas has had tremendous success in making Roosevelt on of the premier schools in the district. Recently, Roosevelt received the honor of being named a California Distinguished School because of the excellent progress in student achievement among all groups of students. Just last week, Roosevelt received another honor, being named an Honor Roll School by the Campaign for Business and Education Excellence for maintaining high student achievement over a sustained period of time.
“We expect the same high levels of achievement for Madison and believe that Mr. Ruelas and the staff at Madison will work together to achieve great things for our students. While we did not go through the usual process to appoint Mr. Ruelas as your next Principal, please understand that we have every expectation that he will improve student achievement at the school.
“Currently, Madison is one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district. It is my expectation that the teachers and staff work together with Mr. Ruelas in order to improve achievement for all students. It is also my hope that the Madison community will enjoy a positive relationship with the new Principal. Mr. Ruelas will be reachipg out soon to hold meetings in order to get to know the parents, and I hope you will attend one of these events.
“Brian McDonald, Ed.D. Superintendent of Schools.”