Voters in Orange County will decide the makeup of school boards in 14 districts Nov. 3, but three races in particular are expected to attract attention.
In the Orange Unified district, the election comes as legal charges are pending against three of the seven school board members. In Laguna Beach, the election follows the ouster of three school board members in a recall vote. And in Santa Ana, the county's largest school district, the retirement of a moderate incumbent may change the board's conservative-moderate balance.
There will be 13 elementary and high school races on the ballot. Coast Community College District is the only higher-education district with an election this fall.
The election in Orange Unified comes against a backdrop of still-unresolved legal charges against three of the seven school board incumbents.
For the past two years, Orange Unified has been shaken by an investigation of a multimillion-dollar bid-rigging scandal. The 1986-87 Orange County Grand Jury earlier this year indicted a former district employee for allegedly masterminding the bid-rigging scheme in the early 1980s. The grand jury later brought legal action--called an accusation--against four of the seven incumbents on the board.
The four accused by the grand jury of "willful misconduct" were Eleanore Pleines, Ruth C. Evans, Joe C. Cherry and Robert J. Elliott. The grand jury alleged that they failed to watch district business closely enough, the Orange County district attorney's office has said. The charge is not a criminal action, and the only penalty they face if found guilty is loss of office.
Pleines resigned and the charge against her was dropped. Evans, Cherry and Elliott still face trial in Orange County Superior Court.
Pleines' seat is one of the three in Orange Unified to be filled in the Nov. 3 election. Five names will be on the ballot for that seat, but one, Dean Dykema, has withdrawn as an active candidate. The other candidates are Jeff E. Holstien, a school district administrator; Daniel E. Matranga, an insurance agent; Lawrence Labrado, a Cal State Fullerton administrator, and Steve Barke, a youth administrator.
Two other incumbents in Orange Unified seeking re-election this year are William G. Steiner and Russell J. Barrios. The Orange County district attorney's office has said that Steiner, Barrios and board member Sandy Englander all came on the board after the alleged bid-rigging and thus had no role in that matter. Nonetheless, Steiner and Barrios have drawn challengers in the Nov. 3 election.
Steiner's opponent is Frank A. Safarik, a painter. Barrios' opponents are Robert Viviano, a corporation director, and Robert Muffoletto, an education professor.
In Laguna Beach Unified, the election comes on the heels of a special recall election Sept. 22, when voters recalled three incumbents: Carl Schwarz, Janet Vickers and Charlene Ragatz.
Kathleen Jones, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Irvine, was elected in the recall to succeed Ragatz. But the term for that seat expires in November, and Jones must win a full four-year term Nov. 3 in order to retain the position.
Ragatz also is on the Nov. 3 ballot, as are Matthew Gorry, an engineer, and James G. Kreder, a business owner. Both Gorry and Kreder were active in the recall movement that ousted Schwarz, Vickers and Ragatz.
Nothing in state law forbids a recalled candidate from seeking a new term, so Ragatz could be restored to the board Nov. 3 and serve a new four-year term. Incumbent Harry Bithell is not seeking re-election. There are thus two seats to be filled in Laguna Beach Unified on Nov. 3, and the top two of the four candidates in the race will be elected districtwide.
Santa Ana Unified
Santa Ana Unified, the largest school district in Orange County with 37,000 students, draws interest in the Nov. 3 election because moderate board member Joan Wilkinson is retiring. Wilkinson's successor could change the conservative-moderate balance on the five-member board.
The current Santa Ana board has two conservatives, Mary Pryer and James A. Richards. The other three board members are Wilkinson, James Ward and Sadie Reid-Benham, who are moderate-to-liberal on various education issues.
Ward and Reid-Benham are seeking re-election Nov. 3. Based on past elections, in which incumbents normally have been re-elected, Ward and Reid-Benham are favored to win. The swing vote in the district therefore would lie with the new member succeeding Wilkinson.