Husband, wife school board trustees under microscope in this Fresno-area fall campaign

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A bitter, months-long power struggle could come to a head this fall for the West Park Elementary School District just west of Fresno city limits.

Three of the school board’s five at-large seats are on the November ballot, including the seat held by Board President Kimberly Vivenzi. She has served on the West Park school board with her husband, Mark, since December.

The married couple and Trustee Anna Benavidez have formed a majority block vote and pushed through some controversial decisions over the last year.

Critics have accused the three trustees of overstepping their authority and blamed them for a mass staff exodus last year, including firing two superintendents just months apart. One of the fired superintendents is suing West Park for wrongful termination.

An Education Lab review of every school board vote since December — more than 100 votes in all — turned up no record of the Vivenzis and Benavidez ever voting separately.

Responding to questions about her voting history, Kimberly Vivenzi acknowledged the pattern, saying the three of them are “not of one mind but of similar goals” and share a vision of what’s needed to make West Park successful.

“I am proud that the overwhelming majority of matters that have come before the Board this year have passed by the unanimous vote of ALL Board members,” she said in an email to The Bee. “I believe it demonstrates that we are listening to each other and compromising where possible so that everyone can agree.”

When asked whether it was true that she, her husband and Benavidez have never voted apart, she said, “No, I do not believe that is accurate,” but provided no evidence, despite repeated requests.

Mark Vivenzi did not respond to the question about their voting record on the school board.

Benavidez said she believes the Vivenzis want to improve the district for the children but said she would vote against them if she disagreed with them on something. She said she doesn’t think it’s fair for the community to label her their “follower.”

Jim Yovino, the Fresno County superintendent of schools, confirmed it’s not illegal for spouses to serve on a board together.

“I think what the community is questioning is the appearance of it,” he told the Ed Lab in July. “And that’s something they need to really take up directly with who they elect.”

Critics of the West Park school board have been eyeing the upcoming Nov. 8 election as their chance to make big changes for the struggling school district.

Benavidez and Kimberly Vivenzi are seeking re-election in what could be a hotly contested race with a crowded field of six candidates competing for the three seats. Mark Vivenzi was elected to a four-year term in 2020.

West Park board members criticized for turnover

West Park parents and teachers have blamed the board for high turnover last year, resulting in the loss of about a third of the small district’s entire staff since September 2021, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and office administrators — going from about 85 employees to just around 54 in mid-May, according to the West Park teachers union.

Tensions boiled over during a June school board meeting when a scuffle broke out in the crowd that involved Benavidez’s husband and other relatives. Fresno County sheriff’s deputies broke up the fighting but made no arrests.

The board has also faced scrutiny for firing West Park’s longtime superintendent, Ralph Vigil, last December — then firing his replacement, Regina Diaz, a few months later.

Vigil was fired at a Dec. 15 meeting where the only trustees presents were Benavidez and Kimberly and Mark Vivenzi. The minutes do not mention how the board voted regarding his firing. Diaz was appointed as his replacement at a Jan. 10 meeting on a 3-1 vote, with both Vivenzis and Benavidez once again voting together.

Diaz’s appointment came despite a vote of no confidence submitted against her in her previous role as the district’s learning director — which led teachers and parents to question whether her appointment was influenced by a personal relationship between Diaz and Kimberly Vivenzi. Neither Vivenzi nor Diaz have answered questions about a perceived relationship.

Diaz has since filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against West Park that also names Kimberly Vivenzi as a defendant.

More recently, the teachers union has called out the board for delaying contract negotiations past the start of the 2022-23 school year — the latest that union president Robin Johnson ever recalls negotiations starting.

Johnson has pointed to the upcoming election in November as an opportunity to vote for candidates who support their goals — including trying to merge with the larger Washington Unified School District where West Park students go to high school.

“We’re working hard on getting good board members that understand that being a small school district really isn’t cost-efficient,” said the West Park teachers union president Robin Johnson in a May interview.

Last week, Johnson told the Ed Lab the union plans to be involved in the election, including knocking on voters’ doors, but said the teachers have yet to endorse any candidates.

Meanwhile, the incumbents have pushed back against criticism from the community, saying the current board inherited the mistakes and challenges of previous administrations.

“Reverting to old administration policy and procedures or, lack thereof, would cripple the progress of student(s’) success and hinder staff compensation, which has remained historically lower than (West Park’s) feeder schools for more than 15 years,” Kimberly Vivenzi said in an email to the Ed Lab.

Benavidez has also pointed to new initiatives the current board is responsible for, including COVID vaccination clinics and the district’s first sports banquet for student-athletes this past year.

What to know about West Park’s election

West Park trustees are all at-large, so they aren’t assigned specific geographic areas to represent, like in larger school districts in Fresno or Clovis.

Instead, all the candidates will be put into one pool, said Fresno County Clerk James Kus in an email to the Ed Lab. The three candidates with the most votes will fill the three open seats.

Three challengers have filed in West Park’s election as of the Friday deadline, according to Fresno County Clerk’s online records — Maria Rosa Duarte, Fernando Alvarez and Ezekiel Rodriguez. Alvarez and Rodriguez have been vocal critics of the current board in recent meetings.

The three challengers will also compete with three incumbents in the race.

Araceli Lopez, a third incumbent, was elected to West Park’s board just four months ago in a special election to fill an opening on the board left by the late Thomas Deubert, who died in office in 2021. Lopez did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Ed Lab.

Benavidez was first appointed to the board in December 2020 to fill a seat vacated by Angelica Pineda after she resigned due to a “personal obligation,” according to records from the Fresno County Superintendent’s office.

Vivenzi was first appointed to the board in March 2020 to finish the term of the late Edward Randolph, who was elected in 2016 and died in office. She served until December 2020.

She later ran successfully for another seat on West Park’s board in November last year after former trustee Richard Lopez resigned.

Early voting starts Oct. 10 and can be done by visiting the County Clerk’s office at 2221 Kern St.

Election Day is Nov. 8.

The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab at its website .