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Orange Unified School Board Has Abandoned Conservative Agenda

The district is in turmoil amid accusations of fiscal mismanagement and infighting.

November 05, 2000|BILL LEWIS | Bill Lewis is on the Orange Unified Board of Education

As a conservative Republican who supports school vouchers and opposes property tax increases, I have become embarrassed to be a member of the Orange Unified Board of Education.

Since first elected in 1991, I have always supported fiscal solvency, a stronger student curriculum and more opportunities for those who will never attend college.

Unfortunately, the current board's conservative principles of honesty, accountability and representative government have given way to ignoring failure, empowering those who are accountable to no one, and firing scapegoats for the board's mistakes.

Teacher strikes, graphic debates over the Gay-Straight Alliance, allegations that the board hoards millions of dollars and accusations of board contempt for the teachers' hard work are but a few of the charges leveled at us. Consequently three board members are subject to recall. Some allegations have merit and some do not, but one fact is indisputable: This school district is in turmoil.

A truly conservative school board would manage this district based on the principles we were elected to uphold. Unfortunately, many community members now question if some board members ever subscribed to those principles.

We have implemented excellent programs, including the Academic Standards Advisory Committee, the reinstatement of the elementary school music program, the first charter school in the county, an increase in sports facilities and funding, and the elimination of bilingual education long before Proposition 227 was enacted. In addition, this board has kept our schools focused on a "back to basics" agenda.

The district is one of the few government entities in which conservatives allegedly control the majority. And yet, despite the board's achievements, this district is out of control and there is no evidence of a turnaround in the near future. At one time, the Orange school board was viewed as the shining example of what great things a conservative board could do.

We are elected officials representing 100,000 voters and 30,000 children. Yet this "conservative" board only now is aware of the fact that its employee health benefits, which were the best in the county four years ago, are now among the worst. Recently we learned that in some cases we did not even vote on benefit changes, which is required by state law. It is our responsibility to oversee all aspects of business, finance and education.

I implore the board to pay more attention to the concerns of angry parents, incensed employees and retirees, and to the district's long-term erosion of morale and reputation. We are not required to implement their suggestions, but it is our duty to understand their concerns.

Managers in private industry understand this. Policy changes must be implemented delicately and gradually and conveyed clearly. Even if employees disagree, they at least will understand the thought process. We don't adhere to this principle at the district.

There is currently a prevalent attitude of hopelessness among district employees. Too many good teachers are quitting; too many retirees have been double-crossed and now face financial hardship. This district is a pressure cooker ready to explode, but many of the so-called conservatives appear oblivious.

We recently lost one lawsuit in which the district attempted to force classified retirees into a different benefit program from the active employees. The court has ordered our district to pay back huge sums of money, thereby costing taxpayers an incalculable amount.

Now the district is forcing active teachers and spouses older than 65 to enroll in Medicare at a substantial personal cost--just for turning 65. This public relations blunder has all the makings of an age discrimination lawsuit.

Our board is rarely apprised of the legal risks of these benefit changes, yet the costs of defending these sure losers could reach upward of $400,000. No school board member should tolerate being kept in the dark to this extent.

Although this board deserves credit for several accomplishments, its ultimate legacy will be the recall, likely to occur early next year. From all indications it is doing quite well. The Chamber of Commerce, active employees and retirees, parents and the general public are extremely unhappy.

The lesson for conservative officials everywhere is that effective government must work with employees and the community--not against them.

We have a duty to prove to the public that implementing conservative philosophies is a far superior alternative to those espoused by liberals. A lack of managerial skills by only a few elected conservatives will succeed only in bringing liberals back into power.

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