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August 17, 2004 > Vandal Watch Program in Jeopardy

Vandal Watch Program in Jeopardy

School Board Will Decide Mission San Jose Program

by Veronica Velasquez

The vandal watch program at Mission San Jose Elementary School may soon face extinction as its 87-year-old employee faces eviction. Thelma Russ, also known as "Mo", has served as the official security monitor at Mission San Jose Elementary for the past 27 years. A navy veteran of World War II, Russ was hired by the Fremont Unified School District as part of the vandal watch program in 1977. Her house, a mobile home on the school campus, was built specifically for the purpose of the program.

The Fremont Unified School District has recently made the decision to build a new multi-purpose room for the students. The proposal calls for the project to be built in the space of the lot where Russ' home currently sits.

As the official vandal watcher, Russ is charged with monitoring the grounds and reporting vandalism, theft and suspicious persons to the Fremont police. Mo has become a sort of mascot to the community, as generations of school children have come to befriend her. When the situation with the school district's plans to build the new multi-purpose room became known in the community, letters of support began to come in to the Russ family. Many of them expressed their fondness for Russ, and the fear that the school will be left without any protection at all.

"We have a petition, signed by 400 people, that we are planning to bring to the next school board meeting," said Lona Gordon, Russ' daughter, who now handles the vandal watch duties for her mother. "They don't want Mo to go."

"Putting her out in the street is truly heartless," stated one letter. "It seems to me some consideration should be given to someone who has served so long, as well as the continued security of the school," another letter read."You can ask anyone, and they'll tell you that building can be put anywhere else on the campus," Gordon said.

"There are eight acres of property at the school."Russ was told of the decision at the end of May, when Therese Gains, director of facilities of the Fremont Unified School District came to notify her in person. Both Russ and Gordon have tried on several occasions to contact the District Office about the situation, but say that they have not heard anything back for more than three months.

Calls from the Tri City Voice to the Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) and to Therese Gains had not been returned at press time.

FUSD is expected to address the subject at the next school board meeting, scheduled for August 18th. Gordon, speaking on behalf of her mother, has suggested several alternative solutions, such as putting the new building elsewhere, or relocating Russ' home to another part of the campus. Gains has been quoted as saying that these solutions may not be viable.

One problem is that Russ' house may not stand up to relocation, as it is 27 years old, and it is not actually designed to be moved. Likewise, rethinking the placement of the new building brings up the question of whether Russ' needs should take precedence over the needs of the students.

Other possible alternatives include either buying Russ' property out or relocating her to another school Vandal Watch site. "Therese Gains told me the district would buy my mother's house out for $10,000," Gordon said. "How can they treat a loyal employee like that?" "My mother's whole life is the school, and the children," said Gordon. "The kids come by and sit on the porch and talk to her all the time. She's healthy, and very independent. My husband and I still catch her sometimes, walking around, checking to make sure the doors are locked and that no one is loitering around the school. She's like clockwork."

The plan for the new building, which is slated to go into effect in one year, calls for the displacement of both Russ' house and a child care center on campus. A provision to relocate the child care center has already been made, according to the map drawn up by Gordon. Gordon sent copies of the map, together with newspaper clippings about the situation and several letters addressed to the school district and to local newspapers, to each school board member, following coverage of the story on Channel 11.

"I sent them each a package of some of the letters we've received in support of my mom," Gordon said. "I told them they had better watch the news tonight. Only one board member responded, to tell me that she had missed it on TV."

As an official school district employee, Russ is paid $6.33 a month for her services. She owns the house, and in addition to the property taxes, she pays $131 to the district for rent and utilities. Russ has said that she is determined to continue her service to the school, in spite of the plans for the new addition.

"She told me that when the bulldozers come to demolish her house, she's going to chain herself to the fence out front," Gordon said. "And I told her that she couldn't do that, but if she did, I'd be right by her side."

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