This community opinion was contributed by Hollister School District board member Rob Bernosky. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
There was no surprise to the governing board of the Hollister School District when the public Googled our finalist candidate, Diego Ochoa. We had done preliminary work and knew about the incidences that San Benitoians found. Our hiring plan included in-depth backgrounding of the finalist, regardless of who it was. That backgrounding is going on as this is being written. The wording of a recently published Benitolink article has caused me to write this.
The issues mentioned below are complex, nuanced, and not well-researched to the appropriate level in the reporting that is the source of the information being bantered around in social media about our introducing our candidate. In today’s world, many newspapers print the sensations and bury the facts and/or context.
Any school can have problems of its own, but a school can also be affected by the culture and the management, if not overt control exercised at the district office level. Sweetwater Union High School District had and has significant issues even today, because it still has not reformed itself. In fact, it has been embroiled in many scandals that appear to stem from overall mismanagement and corruption that I can surmise caused and causes a lot of drama and chaos at many levels. From 30 years in private and public experience, I can say with certainty that drama and chaos leads to much more of the same.
In 2014, the superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and other charges after being indicted with 15 others, including three board members but not our candidate. The nefarious behavior was over financial scandal that occurred while our candidate was employed there. Today, the school district is at significant risk of being taken over by the state over continued financial mismanagement and seemingly political favor letting. In between they have had to settle large-dollar claims over employee misbehavior.
Our candidate seemingly got caught up in the web of bad acts of others. While there were claims of misspending of non-school funds at the high school where he was principal, it ultimately was merely an accounting error. It is important to note that no one ever claimed that our candidate was responsible for any aspect of the problem, other than he was principal. Our candidate certainly never personally benefited from the error.
Unfortunately, at that same high school, there was an issue with an academic credit recovery program. As many high schools have done, it was designed to allow students to better their grades by learning that which they had previously failed to learn. What was supposed to happen was a new letter grade was to be displayed on a student transcript next to the original grade earned, with an explanation of the change. However, a clerical error occurred, that being a wrong form for the modified grade being used, resulting only in the new grade being displayed.
If my understanding is correct, no funds were misspent, no grade was given that was not earned, and at the end of the day, no actual harm was done. But our candidate was overall “in charge” and he took what some would regard as a demotion and became a middle school principal as a result. I believe that if Mr. Ochoa was guilty of anything, it was taking a job in a corrupt, scandalous school district at a young age before he was of the means to quit or to do anything about it. Many people I know have fallen victim to similar situations in their careers.
As an individual that has insight into school systems, corporate entities, and other organizations, all involving many people, I can tell you that there are very few individuals that have absolute control over all aspects of an entity, most of all a school. But the board members, more senior individuals, the public, often have to point the finger at someone, sometimes anyone, to satisfy the human need for blame to be assigned. I think that Mr. Ochoa may be in the receiving end of that area.
Adding to the drama of this story, is another school district made Mr. Ochoa an offer in 2011 but was declined after the situations mentioned above came to light. Being still fresh at the time, it was too much for the public to stomach, and the offer was declined for political reasons. Another important note is that he chose to leave the offensive school district. That is what honorable people do when able.
A lot of time has passed and our candidate has stayed in the game, successfully rebuilding his career. It is inspirational for those beat up in the court of political opinion and I believe we have reasons to move forward with him.
His last seven years in the Esparto Unified School District have been exemplary. Those years have included serving as a high school principal (for three years) with no issues. Based on his excellent stewardship of Esparto High School, he was offered the superintendent position which he has since held. During his tenure there, the District has retained classified/certificates staff at more than 90 percent rate, greatly increased elective/honors courses, signed multi-year labor pacts, and attained more than $5 million in competitive grant funds and much more.
As your elected official, I work for you. Thus far, I believe what I have learned. If other facts come to light, I will take them into consideration and vote accordingly.