Incumbent leaders of the Orange County Board of Education appeared Tuesday to have survived a drive by conservatives to take control of the agency that provides services to 27 local school districts.
With about half the precincts reporting on the race for superintendent, incumbent John F. Dean of Newport Beach, seeking reelection to a third term, was leading by a commanding margin over Darrell Opp, who works for Dean as chief education officer of the Central County Regional Occupation Program.
Opp, who lost a similar challenge to his boss in 1994, campaigned on claims that Dean inflated the department's budget and gambled away district money in the county investment pool when the county went bankrupt in 1994.
Dean argued that Opp doesn't understand how the system works--that the number of students determines the district budget, and that state law mandated the district commingle its funds with county investments.
"People like their schools in Orange County, and they're very happy with them. This reflects that," said Dean, a former local school district administrator and former dean of Whittier College's education department. He criticized what he described as a "nasty campaign."
Opp said any negativity in the campaign came from Dean, and chalked up the results to the power of incumbency.
"It was the night of the incumbents," Opp said, adding that his campaign and those of the challengers for the trustee seats focused on the bilingual education proposition, which appeared to pass by an overwhelming margin. "I can't figure it out at this point. We'll try to analyze it [Wednesday]. But even with the failure, I think we've gotten our message out."
The chief superintendent's job entails overseeing a $100-million department that provides teacher training and other services to local school districts. The department also collects data for the state, runs special-education programs and offers alternative schools for juvenile delinquents and expelled students.
In the trustee elections, incumbent Sheila Meyers of Huntington Beach was leading over Cypress music teacher Alexandria Coronado in the Area 2 race. And incumbent Elizabeth D. Parker of Costa Mesa was running ahead Irvine business lawyer Donald P. Wagner in the Area 5 race.
Coronado criticized Meyers, 63, a 14-year board member, for allowing a "federal takeover" of the district by accepting federal funds. Wagner accused Parker, 38, a 16-year board member and president of a Costa Mesa software company, of being a "tax-and-spend lap dog." A victory by the challengers would have them joining fellow conservatives Eric Woolery and Ken Williams to form a majority on the five-member board.
Wagner was philosophical about the results. "It's not surprising," he said Tuesday night. "Taking on an incumbent is an uphill battle."
Meyers found the results buoying.
"I'd like to think that the voters know what they're doing when they vote," Meyers said. "I would like to say that it's wonderful because a voice of reason is coming back to the school boards. But this is only one election and one board, and so the results probably aren't any great indicator."