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Multiple people challenged the leadership of Tommie Kunst Junior High School principal Carmen Rivera Wednesday night during the Santa Maria-Bonita board meeting, accusations that Rivera denied following the lengthy public comment period.

For more than an hour at the start of the crowded meeting, teachers and classified staff from Tommie Kunst testified about the nature and effect of Rivera's leadership. Describing her as uncouth and unprofessional, more than a dozen speakers detailed a rapidly deteriorating campus climate and what they said is a hostile, unsafe environment for students, staff and parents. Some called Rivera a "liar" while others said her defensive and adversarial nature makes her unfit to lead.

However Vanessa Cantu, a Tommie Kunst alumna, spoke in support of Rivera. After hearing multiple comments and accusations, Cantu said she was in awe at the conduct of the teachers who spoke out against Rivera.

"The same people who tell us not to bully, bully, and the same people who tell us to have respect don't," she said. "What you just showed me and my sister is that it's OK to talk down to somebody else."

Rivera addressed the board and audience following the string of comments, and while she acknowledged that her remarks about educational equity may have offended people at the start of the school year, Rivera said the characterization of her tenure was inaccurate.

"Much of what was said tonight by our teachers was twisted," Rivera said. "It's unfortunate that there have been so many instances that have been twisted — tonight I am going to call out the lies."

"The teachers who work at the site ... have concerns about how [Tommie Kunst] is being managed," said Jose Segura, president of the Santa Maria Elementary Education Association. According to Segura, the comments from frustrated teachers and staff Wednesday weren't the first they have made to administrators regarding Rivera's conduct.

"They're looking for the district to help them," he said. "If that means helping the manager [improve] then great; if that means replacing them, great. We want to do whatever it takes to make sure students are safe in their learning environment."

Reading on behalf of several colleagues who "wished to protect themselves from retribution," Wayne Walker, a longtime junior high teacher for the district, described multiple alleged disparaging remarks or instances of unprofessional conduct by Rivera. 

"A co-worker reported that they had reached out to Ms. Rivera in order to get help with a student," Walker read, "[and] before the staff member could even finish speaking, Rivera put her hand in this person's face and said 'He isn't connecting with you because you are white.'" 

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Walker said staff met with Superintendent Luke Ontiveros and Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Patty Grady late last year regarding Rivera's conduct, but said nothing came of those meetings. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Walker and other staff asked the board Wednesday night for her resignation or removal.

"The principal is someone who represents our school district and leads a school in word and deed. As a staff, we would like the board to consider us to move forward without Ms. Rivera as principal," Walker said, drawing applause from a large portion of the room.

Limited to three minutes during her public comment period, Rivera refuted claims about her use of inappropriate language with students, stating she was simply speaking to them in Spanish. She also denied granting classroom access to a hostile and inappropriate parent, an incident that resulted in a classroom evacuation.

Board members did not speak following the lengthy public comment period, largely due to the confidential nature of personnel matters. Superintendent Ontiveros said conversations regarding Rivera's conduct and the situation at Tommie Kunst will continue with involved parties.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.