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Before Eduardo Preciado took over, it was a placid committee where parents gave their input on programs for English learners in Vista schools.

Now the group is embroiled in Vista’s struggle to find a voice for a Latino community that has grown in numbers but not in political posts over the last decade.

Preciado has changed the committee on English learners into a platform for a small but passionate group of Latino parents who say it’s their only place to speak out on all kinds of issues. Though Latino children are now much more common than white students in Vista schools, the school board is largely white and other Latino groups are scarce. One fan calls his group “the voice of the Latino people.”

But not everyone wants him to be that voice. His group has split Latino parents — and some want the outspoken and impassioned Preciado out. Some take issue with his injection of politics into the committee. Others call him too aggressive and confrontational.

There is fierce disagreement over whether the English learners committee should even play the role Preciado has pushed it to. Such committees are supposed to advise their districts on programs for English learners. Preciado has pushed the group to voice its opinions and seek change on much broader, more controversial debates.

He rails against the teachers union and the school board. He argues that the school district has failed Latino kids, pointing to the sobering dropout rates for Latino teens and decrying cuts to busing and programs.

“The reality is the school district’s not doing anything to help our children,” Preciado said.

Critics on the committee say Preciado is alienating school officials and undermining their credibility by attacking the school district, instead of working together with them to help Latino children.

“It’s important for us to have a voice,” said Gabriela Hooshmand, the previous president of the English learners committee and a frequent opponent of Preciado. “But it’s important for us to do it right.”

With a vacuum of other Latino groups in the schools, the power struggle over whether Preciado will lead the committee has become a battle over who will speak for Latinos there. And that, in turn, could become a more pressing question as California school boards face new questions about racial equity.

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Vista schoolchildren are much more likely to come from families with names like Hernandez or Delgado than a decade ago, when white children outnumbered Latino ones in the schools. Today, there are nearly twice as many Latino children as white ones and kindergartens are even more heavily Latino.

But the school board has stayed largely white.

The paucity of Latinos on the school board and City Council put Vista under the microscope seven years ago when the U.S. Department of Justice investigated whether minority voters were being drowned out. It weighed whether Vista had to start electing candidates from small districts instead of the whole city. Federal officials ultimately decided it didn’t.

City and school district officials say the real issue is that many Latinos aren’t involved politically or in parent groups, often because they’re juggling more jobs and family demands.

Michelle Gosnell, who leads the district’s broader parent advisory committee, said many of the involved Latino parents are more likely to go to the English learners committee — whose meetings are conducted in Spanish — than to her group. Her meetings have never needed Spanish translation, Gosnell said.

Some Latinos call the English learners group their only outlet. “This is our place,” said Jacqueline Cesareo. It is a refrain that school board member Elizabeth Jaka knows well — and rejects.

“The Hispanic parents are being told that because there’s no Hispanic parent on the board, that nobody’s going to listen to them,” Jaka said. “I don’t think that’s true.”

But right or wrong, Preciado has tapped into that sentiment, making the committee a bully pulpit for concerns that run far past its traditional duties.

Preciado points out that Hispanic dropout rates are alarming. Scores on an English learners test have bobbled. He lays blame with the teachers union, particularly after it fought off a reading program championed by the superintendent, and calls conservative Jim Gibson his only ally on the school board.

Test scores for Latino students in Vista have grown, though they haven’t met No Child Left Behind targets. The gap with white children has narrowed. English learners are gaining fluency at higher rates. A new mentoring program is focused on Latino boys. But Preciado and his allies say it isn’t enough.

School board members and others say he and his committee have overstepped their role. “It cannot usurp the school board’s authority,” said Matt Doyle, curriculum and instruction director.

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The crusade for a Latino voice could ultimately go to court: Several parents say they’re looking to a lawsuit from central California that recently forced a school district to remake its election system to increase Latino representation.

But in the meantime, as Preciado tries to expand the reach of his committee, seemingly dry debates about the rules have ballooned into bigger power struggles about its role.

In May, Preciado tried to use his designated time to report to the school board about English learners to talk about a teachers’ flyer on union issues. School board president Steve Lilly stopped him, saying it would violate open meetings laws. Lilly saw it as a legal issue. Preciado saw it as shutting him up.

“The way Lilly treated Eduardo — that’s the way Hispanics are treated,” said Silvia Peters, a longtime critic of the Vista school district. “That’s not done with Caucasian parents. It’s a battle just to have a voice, to have an opinion.”

Similar accusations flew when a movement sprang up to remove Preciado from his position. Leaders of the English learners committee had declined a mother’s request to discuss removing Preciado at a meeting. But the school district sent out a committee agenda heeding her request.

The result was a chaotic tug-of-war over two different agendas that ended in a stalemate.

Delia Rivera, a mother who sits on the committee, brought a letter to the meeting with more than a dozen parents’ signatures asking to replace Preciado as the president. “I feel like we’re losing our focus,” Rivera said later, shaking her head. “They’re just looking for a fight and offending people.”

Preciado calls his opponents “brainwashed” and alleges signatures were forged.

“I believe in change,” he said. “They’re used to the old ways.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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