Controversy follows new county hire

Steve Olmos says he’s ready to put his rocky tenure in Willows behind him

Former Willows Unified Superintendent Steve Olmos is a few weeks into his tenure with the Butte County Office of Education.

Former Willows Unified Superintendent Steve Olmos is a few weeks into his tenure with the Butte County Office of Education.

Photo By matt siracusa

The Willows Unified School District attracted quite a bit of negative attention this past year. And as its superintendent, Steve Olmos was the man in the spotlight. Now, just months after that spotlight started to dim, Olmos has left his position in Willows and taken a job in Butte County’s Office of Education.

The negative attention has followed Olmos, as evidenced by critical news stories in both the Sacramento Valley Mirror and Willows Journal. But Olmos says he isn’t fazed—and neither is his new boss, BCOE Superintendent Don McNelis.

“We were certainly aware of some of those things,” McNelis said of the two controversial expulsions and reported rocky relationship Olmos had with the Glenn County superintendent of schools. “We talked about it.

“I think Steve is a very skilled administrator,” McNelis added. “I know he’ll do a great job for our office. One or two high-profile things that occurred should not reflect his style, because it’s absolutely not the case.”

Olmos started his new position, as assistant superintendent for student programs and services, on July 1. In that role, he’s responsible for overseeing charter schools, special education, juvenile-court community schools, migrant education, and other special programs.

“It’s a great opportunity, a growth opportunity for my career to come over to the county and experience the county side of things,” Olmos said during a recent phone interview. “I’m looking forward to getting back to education. It’s about the kids.”

The 2009-10 school year at Willows High School was fraught with controversy. First, there was the case of Gary Tudesko, the student who was expelled for bringing firearms (shotguns) to school despite the fact he parked off campus. Then there was Shawki Al-Rifai, who was expelled for starting a fight, despite a strong argument that he had been bullied repeatedly by the boy he hit.

Olmos stands behind his recommendation to expel Tudesko, saying, “There’s no way to criticize that [decision] because we’re mandated by the Ed Code to do what we did.”

The case made national headlines, particularly after the Glenn County Office of Education rescinded the punishment. Arguments had been made that Tudesko was being retaliated against for his mother having spoken out against a bond measure backed by the school district, and besides, supporters said, the kid, who had been duck hunting that morning, had parked his car off campus specifically to avoid problems.

“I absolutely did not agree with them,” Olmos said of GCOE, which ruled to allow the teen to return to school.

He similarly stands behind the Al-Rifai decision.

“It wasn’t even a bullying incident,” he said. “That was the most severe beating I’ve ever seen. I’ve worked in high schools with high gang activity, and I’ve seen some pretty bad beatings. The victim in this incident has received more than $40,000 in medical bills for facial reconstruction and orthodontia.”

Al-Rifai, a quadruplet, is serving time in Juvenile Hall for the incident. According to the Sacramento Valley Mirror, his mother is planning to sue the school district, claiming she had complained to the school about her son being bullied to no avail.

Both the Valley Mirror and Willows Journal also described a rocky relationship between Olmos and GCOE Superintendent Arturo Barrera, pointing to an incident in which Olmos called the police on Barrera, whose visit to an elementary school was not “properly scheduled.”

Barrera did not return numerous phone calls from the CN&R, but McNelis said he’d spoken to him as part of the interview process.

“I talked with Barrera, and he said some very nice things about Steve,” McNelis said. “Maybe they didn’t agree on every subject, but their relationship was not nearly as strained [as some have implied].”

Olmos agreed, saying, “I never really met the guy.”

Olmos, who worked in Los Angeles County before moving to Willows four years ago, is optimistic about his new position in Butte County. But will he be plagued by a few negative memories of his tenure in Willows? He certainly doesn’t think so.

“There will be no issues with the transition,” he said. “Being on this side of the river, it’s a completely different world. It’s like night and day. From what I’ve seen so far, the county office here is a great place to work. Willows was too, but the support you have here, you get the feeling of being on the same team.”