Two controversial school board officials, one nasty harassment case, a criminal investigation, allegations of racism and ill feelings all around form the core of a simmering controversy oddly linking the disparate communities of Calexico and Santa Clara.
The latest developments involve allegations that Annette Gonzalez-Buttner, District 1 trustee of the Imperial County Board of Education, now lives 550 miles away in Santa Clara rather than in the Calexico area she was elected in 2013 to represent. She is the current board president. The board oversees the Imperial County Office of Education.
The Imperial County District Attorney’s Office is conducting a probe.
“We are looking into the matter. A decision has not been made,” Assistant District Attorney Deborah D. Owen confirmed.
Owen added the office is seeking to determine if a criminal act was committed under the portion of the state Election Code that covers residency for elected officials and if that can be proved. She said potential penalties had not been looked into.
Gonzalez-Buttner maintained she remains a Calexico resident and attends ICOE board meetings. She added the accusations are a race-based political hit due to her reformist views.
“I’m sure I tick a lot of people off. (Student) proficiency is the issue. Why are our (student aptitude) test scores so low in the Valley? Why is it our elected officials don’t care,” Gonzalez-Buttner said in a telephone interview. “We are getting more money for local (schools) development. Too much of it is being spent on professional development (of educators).”
In a later e-mail response to questions posed by a Desert Review reporter, she went further, stating, “I am not going to accept rightwing white folks telling me, a brown Mexican-American woman, to hush up and know my place. Someone has to step up and speak truth to oppression. I stand up. I speak up.”
The Santa Clara link
The Desert Review learned of the residency allegation in a Feb. 15 e-mail from Greg Harris. Through Internet research, a telephone interview with Harris, and e-mails from him, it was learned Harris is the husband of Susan Harris, the principal of Peterson Middle School in Sunnyvale.
Susan Harris has been the victim of harassment by Christopher Stampolis, a trustee of the Santa Clara Unified School District that includes Peterson Middle School. Greg Harris alleged in an e-mail to the Desert Review that Stampolis is Gonzalez-Buttner’s “boyfriend” and that the two share an apartment in Santa Clara. Online Santa Clara County elections records show Stampolis listed that apartment’s address, albeit with different unit number, as his residence in his 2012 filing to run for his school board seat.
Greg Harris also alleges Gonzalez-Buttner has been living in Santa Clara since 2014 and that her children attend school in Santa Clara.
Gonzalez-Buttner and Stampolis said unapologetically in a phone interview that she “spends time in Santa Clara” at Stampolis’ residence, that the two are in a relationship, and that she is taking college classes and her children attend school in Santa Clara. Both argued none of that means she does not hold Calexico as her primary residence, nor that it prevents her from fulfilling her responsibilities as an Imperial County school trustee. It violates no law, she added.
Gonzalez-Buttner explained she has known Stampolis for 25 years since they both worked in youth ministry for the Catholic Diocese of San Jose. They kept in touch after she moved back to Calexico and she then decided in 2014 to attend college in Santa Clara and split her time between there and Calexico.
Greg Harris said he reported his allegation that Gonzalez-Buttner does not live in her district to several entities, include ICOE, and the Registrar of Voters and District Attorney’s Office in Imperial County. Both ICOE Superintendent J. Todd Finnell and Registrar of Voters Debra Porter confirmed they had received such a complaint from the member of the public. Both also stated they referred the matter to the District Attorney because their agencies do not conduct such investigations.
Imperial County’s response
Porter added her office checks to see if a candidate who files to run for an office is registered to vote in the area their district covers. There is no procedure for making such a check during a term. She said records show Gonzalez-Buttner listed an address in Calexico when she filed to run for the office in the 2013 election. That is the latest information on file.
Porter, indicating there is some vagueness to the interpretation of elections law, said the situation could be viewed as similar to one where a student goes to college in another area but still uses their parents’ home as their address.
She also said the election law does not have any provision to remove an elected official from office if they move out of their district during their term. Recourse for their constituents would be a recall petition or to defeat them in the next election.
Finnell said he consulted ICOE’s legal counsel after learning of the allegation.
“We’ve had credible allegations that have been made about her residency. That was shared with the board and passed to the D.A.,” Finnell said, adding ICOE has no independent recourse if the residency allegation is true.
Greg Harris explained he started looking into Gonzalez-Buttner after seeing her at at least one court hearing on Stampolis’ harassment case and at Santa Clara school board meetings.
“I did see Buttner at the harassment court cases and at the November 4, 2015 case she had to wait to give Stampolis a ride home,” Greg Harris wrote in an e-mail.
A heated dispute
The harassment case is by any definition the height of contentiousness.
Online news articles state the case stems from Stampolis’ behavior in August and September 2014 at the middle school where Susan Harris is principal. He was reportedly upset over matters regarding a child of his who attends the school.
Since then, the matter has become a saga of legal filings and public dispute.
An article from the Santa Clara Weekly newspaper states that in a letter entered as evidence in the Santa Clara County Court harassment case, Susan Harris alleges that Stampolis was “uncivil,” “aggressive” and made “violent, gun-like hand and fist gestures” toward her. It adds, “…Stampolis has an intimidating and harassing presence at Peterson Middle School. Teachers and staff are not comfortable around him.”
The court ultimately issued a restraining order against Stampolis ordering him to stay away from Susan Harris and the school, news reports state. He was also ordered to pay her about $19,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.
His colleagues on the Santa Clara school board censured him, meaning district employees may refuse to meet with him or respond to his emails and phone calls.
Stampolis has fought back, news reports add, rebuffing calls for his resignation, filing his own court actions and alleging the actions against him are a distraction against the real issue of helping Latino students and providing equitable education services.
In the interview, Stampolis said he is appealing the restraining order, which has “no allegation of physical contact.” He added he is dedicated public servant with many years serving on school boards and a planning commission and that he puts students’ needs first.
Of his relationship with Gonzalez-Buttner, he said, “Annette is a great activist for student proficiency. She is a wonderful person. I am happy to have her in my life.”
Stampolis and Gonzalez-Buttner said they make frequent trips, including with their children, between Santa Clara and Imperial County and that she does more than just attend ICOE board meetings.
Accuser’s motives questioned
Greg Harris said after doing online research into Gonzalez-Buttner he decided to report his allegations because, “My issue with Ms. Buttner is she is unethical by concealing that fact she is living in Santa Clara County while serving the Imperial County community she was sworn to support.”
Gonzalez-Buttner in an e-mail made clear her feelings about the Harrises and did not deny knowledge of issues in Santa Clara schools:
“Greg Harris is a white Republican activist. He is married to Susan Buchser Harris, the white Republican principal of Peterson Middle School in Sunnyvale that has one of California’s most glaring achievement gaps for economically-challenged Latino students and one of the lowest sets of student scores in the entire state for economically-challenged Latinos on the Spring 2015 SBAC tests. The Harrises have not put forth a plan to prioritize fixing this underachievement, nor Peterson’s consistent refusal to provide a daily after-school homework center. Rather than deal with this academic underachievement – that I call racism – the Harrises and their teammates put their efforts into disparaging anyone who points out their unmet duty to serve brown kids.”
Official and ICOE spar
Gonzalez-Buttner also e-mailed the Desert Review a copy of a six-page letter to ICOE Superintendent Finnell dated Jan. 31 that defends her residency status. Similar to a legal brief filed with a court, it contains detailed references to state codes and related case law. She also sent what she states is an e-mail “thread” between herself and Finnell. The tone is pointed.
In a Jan. 29 e-mail Finnell wrote: “As you are aware, there have been questions raised regarding your residency and ability to hold office. It is important to be able to respond to these questions to ensure the public’s trust and confidence in ICOE and all of us as elected officials.
“It is the advice of legal counsel that we gather some information regarding your residency and eligibility to hold office and determine next steps, if any, to be able to put these questions to rest. The attached letter and supporting document, which are also being sent via certified mail, is the first step in this process. As mentioned in the letter, we will go into closed session at our next meeting to discuss any potential litigation that might arise, and to solicit direction from the Board on any next steps.”
On Feb. 1 Gonzalez-Buttner replied: “As detailed in the attached letter and request for documents, we will not go into closed session at the February 9, 2016 meeting on this issue. Not only is this issue outside your jurisdiction, but your citations of case law and statute are horrifically off-point and no applicable Government Code exception exists to permit closed session consideration.
“Please respond to the requests for documents in an expedited manner as time is of the essence. As my letter states, your letter has no legal foundation for your accusations. As discussed by members of the public at our January, 2016 meeting, we should focus on student proficiency and civil rights protections in Imperial County, not spending public money for politically-motivated, poorly-researched letters.
“Please acknowledge receipt of this letter and request for documents.”
Gonzalez-Buttner was elected to the ICOE board in 2013 and serves until 2017. She said she lived in her ICOE District 1, which mostly encompasses Calexico, when she was elected and continues to.
For those who question her commitment, she added, “I’ve been at every board meeting except one last year. I have the best (attendance) record” on the board.
ICOE is the state-mandated agency that helps local school districts coordinate elementary and high school education in the county. It is led by the elected board and Finnell, who was first elected in 2014. Besides Gonzalez-Buttner, other board members are Vice President Susan E. Manager (District 3), Alicia Armenta (District 2), Sharon Anderholt (District 4) and Mark Ramirez (District 5).