Joshua Cerna is out of the closet.
On December 5, the ever-controversial Harlandale school trustee was found hiding in a closet in the home of a district elementary-school principal. The principal's husband, who is a Windcrest police officer, suspected his wife was cheating and set a trap by telling her he was going out of town for the night. He returned later that evening. According to the statement the husband gave to deputies who responded to the family-disturbance call, when he entered the house, Cerna ran and hid inside the bedroom closet.
It was an early Christmas present for Cerna’s long list of enemies who for years have been waging a behind-the-scenes battle to unseat him. It’s also another sign the powerful and politically connected Cerna is losing his more than decade-long grip on the scandal-prone district.
“This is ridiculous. We don’t want these scandals out here. We don’t want to be on TV,” said Harlandale resident Lillian Zapata at Tuesday's board meeting. “Be honorable, have integrity, and you know, watch what you do. Watch what you do out there because everyone is seeing you."
Cerna sat with the rest of the seven-member board without saying a word, his wife and two children in the audience.
"This is just an unfortunate misunderstanding," Cerna told me in December, shortly after the report became public. He claims he was just dropping off food for the principal’s school holiday party. At about 10 p.m.
It’s an excuse few believe.
"The issue is, we have a gentleman who, in my opinion, is using his power as a board member to influence the employee that he's supposedly having an affair with,” said George Alejos, who describes himself as a concerned citizen who manages rental property in the district.
During the interview with Cerna last month, I asked him what happened inside the house when the husband came home. "I can't answer that, but there's no truth to any of the affair. I've always tried to maintain integrity and professionalism when dealing with our employees."
The district says the principal has been on administrative leave since December 16 while it conducts an investigation of the incident. The Sheriff’s department didn’t file any charges against anyone involved in the incident.
Despite the dust-up, Cerna insists he’s not going to resign over the scandal.
Standing around six-feet tall, Cerna looks like he could play offensive lineman for the Harlandale Indians. Until recently he was pushing close to 300 pounds, but in the past few months lost 50 pounds on a low-calorie diet. The 38-year-old isn't the kind of guy to be pressured or intimidated — and he certainly didn’t quit over past scandals.
Cerna has long been the bad boy of the academically and financially challenged South Side district. I caught him on hidden camera in 2006 hanging out on the beach in Florida, after he told the district he had to stay an extra day at a school board conference at taxpayer expense. He paid back expenses for the extra hotel night and car rental after being confronted with the video.
In 2009, I obtained receipts and emails from Jasmine Engineering, which oversees bond construction for Harlandale, that showed how lobbyists for the company catered to Cerna. The documents included a receipt for a $500-dollar steak dinner for Cerna and his wife at Ruth Chris Steak House. In an email, one of Jasmine's lobbyists wrote, "Josh wants to go see George Lopez at his next show. Can we get him some tickets?" Cerna told me at the time that he never asked for or got tickets to any concerts or sporting events, and had not done anything illegal or unethical.
But he now must be resigned to the fact he’s lost control of the board majority.
Insiders at the district claim Cerna had been calling the shots in Harlandale for more than a decade. Like any good politician, they say, he’d struck deals and schmoozed enough of his fellow board members to insure he controlled a majority of votes on any issue. Not much got on the agenda without Cerna giving it the green light. According to several board members, Cerna brokered deals with his allies on the board to direct who sat in the president’s chair while he wielded the power behind the scenes. The former Harlandale science teacher has served as board president twice since being elected in 2000. (Esequiel "Zeke" Mendoza is the current president.)
There also have been long-standing accusations that Cerna controlled who got lucrative contracts with the Harlandale. If you didn’t wine and dine Josh Cerna, you didn’t stand a chance of landing a major contract with the district.
Current District 7 board member Jesse Alaniz is one of Cerna's accusers. He has been a thorn in Cerna’s side for years and is part of the new board majority.
“It was very uncomfortable the way contracts were being done. I was unhappy the way Josh was playing golf and having drinks and dinners with vendors," Alaniz says. "And I was getting calls from community members saying they were uncomfortable the way Josh was behaving himself with these folks.”
Alaniz points to the recent controversy involving the delayed construction of new field houses and band halls at McCollum and Harlandale high schools. Several insiders at the district claim Cerna pushed to have the work given to Vitetta, an architecture firm he favored, and that construction soon fell behind schedule. Others on the board didn’t understand the selection, complaining the company was in charge of an earlier bond construction project involving work on the air conditioning system at Adams Elementary that ran into trouble.
Several sources on the board, who asked to remain anonymous, claim Cerna worked with Vitetta’s lobbyist, former State Representative Art Reyna, to make it happen. In return they say Reyna supported Cerna’s successful bid to become president of the Mexican American School Board Association.
“I have a close relationship with Art Reyna that still exists today. But Art Reyna doesn’t define Vitetta," Cerna says. “Vitetta has done some good work for us, other than the HVAC issue.” He blames a subcontractor for the air conditioning problems on the earlier bond project. Cerna adds, “I made it clear that I wanted to do business with people who had done a good job for us in the past.”
Reyna, who's known Cerna for about a decade, says he no longer does consulting work for Vitetta.
"Regarding [Cerna's] election as president of MASBA," he adds, "Joshua was chosen by his school board member peers as a result of his own efforts, including his hard work for the organization."
Not all board members believe Cerna has been the wizard behind the curtain at Harlandale.
“He’s never influenced my vote, but I think there have been other board members who came in with no experience and turned to him for advice,” says Anthony Alcoser, who represents District 6 on the board.
But those who do believe Cerna exerted influence over the board say his days of calling the shots at Harlandale ended last May. That’s when former school teacher Velma Ybarra was elected to the board, touching off a noticeable shift in power. The brash and outspoken new trustee in District 5 quickly sided with the minority of board members opposing Cerna.
The first concrete sign that his reign was over came last November 17 during a raucous board meeting in which Cerna stormed out after the new majority gave the boot to Escamilla, Poneck & Cruz, Harlandale's longtime legal representative.
The legal services contract with Harlandale ranged anywhere from $375,000 to $265,000 a year, according to a current board member. District insiders insist Cerna did the bidding of the powerful law firm in return for political backing. Cerna lead the charge defending the firm during several attempts in the past year to fire the firm, trying to counter accusations from some board members that it was over-billing the district. Attorney Doug Poneck is a frequent contributor to Cerna's campaigns. While it should be noted that Poneck, whose firm has contracts with many school districts and other public entities, gives to many officeholders, you could see the close relationship between him and Cerna just before the vote to fire the firm. Cerna looked at Poneck in the front row, and said out of frustration, “It’s a done deal, a done deal.” An angry Cerna sunk his head into his hands as a new law firm was appointed.
During that same board meeting, Cerna waxed philosophical. “It is about politics,” he said. “And Mr. Alanis is right about one thing, we are a politically elected board. But we’re a government entity, also. We have to represent, not just our constituents, but the entire district.”
During a phone interview with Cerna this week, he denied being a puppet master.
“I never had any board majority, nor did I ever influence or dictate what the board had to do or whatever contract had to come forth," he said. "Every contract and every decision that was done came with a staff recommendation.”
Cerna attributes actions taken by the board during his tenure to teamwork, saying: “We all had a working and open relationship with each other and were able to come together for the betterment of the district.”
As for his opposition to the board's decision to fire Escamilla. Poneck & Cruz, he says, “I just believe in the firm. I still believe in the firm.”
So what does the future hold for Joshua Cerna?
There have been whispers in recent years that Cerna would seek higher office. There was even a rumor he’d possibly take on former Harlandale board member and District 118 State Representative Joe Farias.
But as one politico close to Farias told me, “This guy would have trouble winning his own district. He’d get smoked, especially if he went outside of Harlandale with all of his baggage.”
Cerna denies any interest in challenging Farias, saying, “Right now, I’m just trying to focus on the board.
"I don’t have any other political aspirations other than serving on the board.”
- This blog was originally posted on the political news website plazadearmastx.com