A local teachers’ union stormed a school board meeting Thursday calling for Evergreen School Board trustee Jim Zito’s resignation on claims he’s been “controlling and inappropriate” toward female colleagues and community members.
More than a dozen teachers and supporters from the Evergreen Teachers Association (ETA) held a news conference before the meeting, where several women in the school district detailed encounters with Zito, alleging he made disrespectful and inappropriate comments about them on social media and attempted to bully and intimidate them during board meetings and at school sites.
ETA Vice President Suzanne Lima claims she was publicly humiliated by Zito during a board meeting.
“While I was speaking, he actually stopped, interrupted me and said, ‘Is this relevant?'” Lima told San José Spotlight. “I kind of was shocked for a moment and embarrassed. I pulled myself together and thought, ‘I have every right to say something right now. He shouldn’t be shutting me down,’ and I finished the speech.”
Sarah Ciccarello, a teacher who recently went public with her encounter, said she was frightened when Zito confronted her after she spoke out at a school board meeting about requiring more classroom resources. She was featured in an opposition mailer during Zito’s unsuccessful run for San Jose City Council funded by the San Jose Police Officers Association PAC, which endorsed incumbent Councilmember Sylvia Arenas.
“On his campaign website he accused me of fabricating it,” Ciccarello said. “Mr. Zito doesn’t remember this interaction. Maybe it’s because to him it was just another school board meeting and just another confrontation — to me it was upsetting and it was scary. It was absolutely inappropriate behavior from a school board member.”
But Zito, who did not return calls for comment this week, adamantly denied the claims from the teachers’ union in an email sent last month.
“If any of these allegations were true, they would have been brought to the school district’s attention years ago,” Zito wrote in the email and on his campaign website. “All of our school board meetings are audio recorded, and any member of the public can listen to anything being said at board meetings by going to our district website.”
Ciccarello is a “union officer,” Zito added, and union leaders have disagreed with his decisions on “budget cuts and fiscal restraints” during the decade he’s served on the board. Zito said he’s always been “civil and respectful to every stakeholder involved in educating our next generation.”
“Both unions are entering into contract negotiations again, and they know I’m independent,” Zito wrote. “I am not a rubber stamp for outrageous pensions or unsustainable compensation packages. I am a fiscal conservative, and they know that their control of City Hall would be threatened by my election.”
But ETA President Brian Wheatley said Zito regularly intimidates women and teachers no longer trust him after he allegedly violated a nondisclosure agreement from a union contract mediation by posting the confidential document on Nextdoor.
According to Wheatley, the union filed and won an unfair labor practice charge over the incident.
“I don’t believe he belongs anywhere near kids and particularly in a position of power over a profession that’s predominantly women,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley said he hopes the allegations from teachers will force the school board to take action and encourage more women to stand up to Zito’s “bullying” tactics.
But Board President Leila Welch said it’s important to focus on unity in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
“During this time of uncertainty and stress over COVID-19 and its impact on the health of students, staff, families and community, it is important that we have a unified school board and district,” Welch told San José Spotlight. “As a Board of Trustees, we affirm our unity of purpose with our district and will continue to remain focused on our vision, mission and goals, with health and safety remaining our top priority.”
Zito first ran for the school board in 2010 for a seat that had been uncontested for nearly a decade. As the current longest-serving trustee, his term expires in 2022.
The teachers’ union during its March 5 meeting unanimously took a vote of “no confidence” in Zito’s leadership and called for his resignation. Lima said it was an unprecedented move in her two decades as a teacher.
“I can’t remember, ever, a time where we felt it was so important and that his behavior toward teachers was so bad that we needed to say, ‘You need to resign, you need to step down from this board,'” Lima said. “I can’t remember and I’ve been teaching for 23 years.”
ETA’s move comes a little more than a week after Zito lost the San Jose City Council District 8 race to Arenas.
About two weeks before the March 3 election, Zito lost support from top endorsers, including San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, the Mercury News Editorial Board and the Silicon Valley Organization after details of his divorce also alleging controlling behavior, were reported by San José Spotlight last month.
Ciccarello said on Facebook that her colleagues presented the school board with signatures from more than 350 teachers demanding Zito’s resignation Thursday night. ETA members said they’re discussing the possibility of pursuing a recall if Zito does not resign.