EXCLUSIVE: Felon Serving on Central Falls School Board
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Leslie Estrada was charged with manufacturing and delivering drugs in December 1995. That felony charge was dismissed in May 1996. But later that month, Estrada was arraigned on an amended charge—one felony count of conspiracy to sell drugs. She pleaded no contest in 1997 and was sentenced to ten years of probation, one hundred hours of community service, and a drug treatment program.
A decade later, Leslie Estrada was appointed a trustee for the Central Falls School District by the state Board of Regents. Two separate sources inside the school district confirmed Estrada’s criminal background. One source said it is a fact that is well known among school district faculty and staff but never became public during the controversy over the firing of all high school teachers last year—something which Estrada supported.
Court records show that Estrada also has three misdemeanor charges on her record—driving with a suspended license in 1997 and 2000 and shoplifting in 1997. All three charges were dismissed.
Flanders: Did not know about drug charge before appointment
Bob Flanders—who was appointed to the Board of Regents just months before the November 2007 vote on Estrada—said he was “completely unaware” of her criminal background.
“It's relevant because you want to have people who are good people to serve on that board and if someone has a criminal background, particularly with respect to drugs, we would want to know about that,” said Flanders, a former state Supreme Court justice who now serves as the state-appointed receiver for the city of Central Falls. “I wouldn’t say it’s an automatic disqualification but it’s a strong negative that would need to be clarified before we could even consider such a candidate.”
The head of one of the state teacher unions was surprised to learn yesterday that a criminal background check apparently had not been done on Estrada before she was appointed.
Last year, one mother who wanted to volunteer at her daughter’s elementary school in Cranston filed a lawsuit through the ACLU after the district said that she couldn’t be a volunteer because she had been convicted on two felony counts of heroin possession about six years earlier.
Felony conviction normally a barrier to teaching
Sources in Central Falls school say it’s unfair that Estrada is serving on the Board of Trustees with a felony on her record while a similar background would bar most teachers from working in the district.
Applicants for teacher certification in Rhode Island have to disclose if they have a criminal background. A felony charge could be—but would not automatically be—a barrier to certification. But an individual school district still has the right to not hire a certified teacher because of his or her criminal past.
Flynn said such policies exist in other districts and similar restrictions on volunteers are becoming more commonplace. He said the same standard should be applied to appointed school board members like Estrada. “These policies are in place to protect students and they should be applied consistently,” he said.
However, the chair of the Board of Trustees for Central Falls schools disagreed that there is a double standard. “We’re not in the classroom. We do not have individual relationships with teachers … or administrators,” said Anna Cano Morales. “That is what we hire the superintendent to do.” (Morales also is a former member of the Board of Regents.)
Gist: Criminal conviction not always an obstacle to volunteering
State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist—who was not in office when Estrada was appointed—defended the process used to appoint her.
Morales said she hopes that the public would not hold a youthful mistake against Estrada. “It’s something that’s unfortunate,” Morales said. “Everyone makes mistakes when they’re 20.”
“I think there are a lot more important things we need to talk about in Central Falls,” Morales added.
The news comes as tensions remain at Central Falls one year after teachers were fired and then rehired. At the end of 2010, those tensions neared a breaking point when news reports surfaced that a high absentee rate among teachers was threatening efforts to turn around the struggling school. Meanwhile, teachers said they lacked confidence in how school leaders were implementing the transformation plan for Central Falls High School, which has some of the worst graduation and class fail rates in the state.
New board of trustees created in ‘02
A 2002 state law established a Board of Trustees to run Central Falls schools, which are funded by the state and federal government. The seven-member board includes three at large members and four members who must be residents with children in the district. Members are appointed by the Board of Regents.
Trustees must meet at least once a month and are not compensated for their service.
Superintendent Frances Gallo referred all comments to the Board of Regents yesterday. The new chairman of the board, George Caruolo, did not respond to a request for comment—nor did Leslie Estrada.
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