Alameda County — The Tri-Valley’s elected representative on the Alameda County Office of Education’s (ACOE) board insisted this week that she lives locally, saying allegations that she resides in Oregon and should resign her post are “politically motivated.”
Yvonne Cerrato said that although she operates AJ Organics, a 40-acre farm in Willamina, Oregon — and stayed there at times during the COVID-19 pandemic — she attended all board meetings virtually and plans to complete her current term.
Accusations that she lives in another state are “politics at its worst,” said Cerrato, a 19-year board member.
“I absolutely have residence,” Cerrato said. “I have a house in Pleasanton. I have a condo in Livermore. But I am also in and out a lot because of my business. I am growing 10 varieties of specialty garlic in the name of my son Anthony John. It brings me a lot of happiness.”
Although Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin have their own elected school boards, the ACOE and its board provide budget and other oversight for the county’s 18 school districts. ACOE also operates juvenile court schools and alternative education programs for students not served by local school districts, as well as students who are pregnant or have become parents, are in the justice system, in foster homes and homeless.
At a meeting Sept. 14, a board attorney said he investigated Cerrato’s residency status and determined she lives in the Tri-Valley, not in Oregon. Cerrato’s fellow board members closed the matter.
Their decision, however, hasn’t satisfied everyone.
Questions were raised in August when former Livermore Education Association President Cate Sarraille and other residents contacted the ACOE, asking for Cerrato’s address to be probed. Board members are elected by district. Cerrato’s Area 7 seat represents the Tri-Valley.
Denying her action was politically motivated, Sarraille said language on Cerrato’s farm’s website indicated to her that Cerrato was living there. Cerrato describes a “picturesque 40-acre farm” in Willamina operated by “two middle-aged newlyweds determined to start a new life dedicated to producing quality organic food products.”
“If you are going to represent an area, you need to be in the area and deal with the students, the schools and the needs of those schools,” Sarraille said in a letter to The Independent. “Teachers know what the conditions are, and we need somebody who lives here full time.”
ACOE Board President Aisha Knowles said the board discussed the matter in closed session and ordered an investigation. The results were released publicly during the Sept. 14 meeting.
Board attorney Ed Sklar said he had questioned Cerrato and determined that although Cerrato runs the Oregon farm and lived there during the COVID-19 pandemic, she owns a home in Pleasanton and a condominium in Livermore. Both residences have tenants, he said, but Cerrato lives in the condo. Although she travels to the farm, there is no permanent residence on the land.
Sklar said any attempt to prove in court that Cerrato was not a Tri-Valley resident would likely fail. The board took no action following Sklar’s report. Knowles said the matter was closed.
“Based on the lack of discussion by the board and the report given by legal counsel during the Sept. 14 meeting, the results were sufficient for the board to not take any additional action,” Knowles said.
Cerrato thanked the board but announced she will not run for re-election in June. Her term expires in July.
“It’s time for me to move on and do other things,” Cerrato said. “Until I’m done, I will continue to be a faithful person to the public. I’ve loved being on the board. I’ve loved serving the area that I live in, and I represent them well.”
In an interview, Cerrato acknowledged that she travels from the Tri-Valley to the Oregon farm, which she purchased in 2018 for her son, Anthony. In June 2018, Pleasanton police came to her door to inform her that Anthony had taken his own life.
Cerrato said she decided to run the farm in his memory. Soon after, her other son, Ricky, chose to attend Oregon State University in Corvallis, about an hour drive from the farm.
Cerrato said she spent no more than 10 days in 2019 checking the land and visiting Ricky. A widow, she remarried and travels with her husband to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has children. She said she also checks on her elderly parents in Lincoln, near Sacramento.
She stated that when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and she was able to attend board meetings virtually, she spent longer periods at the Oregon farm. The farm, she said, helped her find peace.
“I took advantage of the virtual meetings to work on my project, making the farm a real farm, and I have been very happy doing so,” Cerrato told The Independent. “With all the lockdowns, I was free to work all day and was protected from the virus. Soon, the virtual meetings will come to an end, and I will be attending the meetings physically as required.”
Cerrato said she plans to move back into the Pleasanton house when her tenants move out at the end of this month. All of her personal belongings are in the Tri-Valley and she has not taken up residence anywhere else, she said.
“Though I am traveling a lot for many reasons, I am still a Tri-Valley resident,” Cerrato said. “I have a right to travel and do what I need to do and want to do. I attend the board meetings and talk to constituents often and remain an important member of ACOE.”
Cerrato accused teacher labor unions and charter school supporters of trying to oust her from the board to create an open seat before next year’s election.
“If I am forced to step down, then the board has to appoint somebody,” Cerrato said. “They are hoping the board will appoint their candidate.”
Of the six people who submitted comments to ACOE for the board’s discussion Sept. 14, three affiliated themselves with teachers’ unions: Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers; Rhem Bell with the California Teachers Federation; and Roberta Kreitz, president of the Dublin Teachers Association. The comments supported Cerrato’s removal.
Aimee Thompson, current president of the Livermore Education Association, which represents teachers and other employees in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, said she was unaware of the controversy and her organization was not involved.
Sarraille, who is retired and said she acted as a resident, called it “absurd” that teachers and charter school supporters would be working together to remove Cerrato.
“That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in a long time,” Sarraille said. She contends Cerrato is “living a lie.”
“The reality is you can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and it’s time for (Cerrato) to stop trying to fool the people of Livermore,” Sarraille said during the public comments portion of the board meeting. “We’re not fools.”
Cerrato said that although she was cleared, her accusers “are making it sound like they are not going to let it go.”
She was right. Sarraille said the board needs to bring in someone from outside to conduct an investigation. Sarraile said Sklar asked “soft questions” that Cerrato evaded.
“When you have your in-house lawyer ask leading questions and not press the respondent for the answer, that's not an investigation,” Sarraille said.
Kreitz, who was among those writing letters to ACOE, also denied any political motivation. She said that if teachers and other employees must report for work in person, “the governing board needs to report to the building,” especially when they take votes on such matters.
“We need to be supported by our electeds,” she said.
Kreitz said it was “fantastic” that Cerrato had found a new life, but said she should resign her post if her heart and focus has shifted to other places. Kreitz suggested Cerrato put her energy into her “new forever home.”
“It comes down to having someone here, having someone committed,” Kreitz said. “Let us find that person who is here now 24/7.”
Knowles said that although the matter is considered closed, the issue could return to the board if new information was presented. Anyone, she said, can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office.
“I just want to finish my term and then somebody can run,” Cerrato said. “I believe in the candidate process.”