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Hart board throws curve

District board denies Gloria Mercado-Fortine her turn as president; she denies claims of conflict

Posted: December 16, 2010 10:09 p.m.
Updated: December 17, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Hart district board members this week named Bob Jensen board president instead of Gloria Mercado-Fortine because of concerns over her involvement with charter schools, board members said Thursday.

Mercado-Fortine denied any wrongdoing, and she insists that any perceived conflict of interest is a “nonissue.”

Mercado-Fortine, who served as board clerk this year, was next in line to lead the William S. Hart Union High School District board.

Board members decided to break the standard rotation.

Board member Joe Messina made the motion nominating Jensen, which board member Steve Sturgeon seconded.
The motion passed 4-1, with Mercado-Fortine voting against it.

Jensen replaces 2010 President Paul Strickland.

Sturgeon and Messina said they are concerned about her employment with Desert Sands Charter High School of the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

The two say Desert Sands and a Hart district charter school, Mission View Public School, are connected, creating a conflict of interest for Mercado-Fortine.

Even though Sturgeon and Messina had contacted Mercado-Fortine about their concerns, Mercado-Fortine said she was still caught off guard Wednesday night.

“I think like many in the audience, I was shocked and taken aback,” she said Thursday.

The fourth-term board member said she’s been transparent and open with the board about the relationship, and that she abstains from any votes that would create any concerns about her interests.

She said that Jensen’s appointment was a “power play” against her.

“You just don’t treat people that way,” she said.

Mercado-Fortine denies ever working for or being paid by Mission View.

“I have nothing to do with them at all,” she said.

Although Desert Sands is listed on the Mission View website, Desert Sands and Mission View are two separate corporations, said Mission View founder and CEO Jeff Brown.

Brown said he only knew Mercado-Fortine as a Desert Sands employees.

Yet the perceived conflict of interest was enough for Messina and Sturgeon to deny Mercado-Fortine the board president title.

“There were some lingering issues with transparency that we really want to work through,” Messina said. “We just felt that we need to give Gloria time. We still need to get some clarity on the concerns we have of conflict-of-interest issues.”

Sturgeon would like to see further review of any conflicts of interest.

“This has nothing to do with me. This has nothing to do with Gloria,” Sturgeon said. “It has do with the law.”

Sturgeon said the public is becoming more and more concerned with any perceived conflicts with elected public officials.

“It’s the kind of situation that can explode and can really harm someone,  so you want to be as open and transparent as possible,” Sturgeon said.

Mercado-Fortine said she is dedicated to education and is frequently sought out for her expertise.

“I’m an educator, and I’m an expert in what I do,” she said.

Mercado-Fortine said she has also consulted the district’s legal counsel, which advised her that there is no conflict of interest as long as she recuses from votes.

Mercado-Fortine said there were other reasons for her being passed over.

“I’m a strong personality on the board,” she said. “I’m Hispanic and I’m a woman.”

Sturgeon and Messina rejected the notion that they targeted Mercado-Fortine because she is a Hispanic woman.

“It had nothing to do with her ethnicity,” Messina said.

Sturgeon and Messina said they did not consult with Paul Strickland or Bob Jensen.

“I had no idea where this was going to go (Wednesday night),” Messina said.

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