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Party's Use of Students Raises Ethical Questions

November 29, 2000|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A public vocational education district in Orange County will write new ethical work rules for students after a cooking class was assigned to cater a Democratic fund-raiser at the home of a district trustee--with no pay.

"When I heard about this, I thought, 'Uh-oh--we need to look at this,' " said Karin Freeman, president of the board of trustees for the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program. "We need to make sure we know what is appropriate and allowed under education law."

Freeman said the use of students' services to benefit a political fund-raiser might have been illegal, and certainly involved students in partisan politics inappropriately.

Board member Kathy Smith acknowledged Tuesday that she had asked the teacher of a culinary-arts class to provide students' cooking services for free at a fund-raiser she held Oct. 22 for Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim). Students cooked the food in the school kitchen, and teachers delivered the food to the fund-raiser, Smith said.

Correa's campaign paid for the hors d'oeuvres, but not the students' work.

Smith, who also sits on the Anaheim Union High School board, defended her actions as a "win-win" situation for Correa and the students. Correa got a fund-raising party, and the students got a chance to practice their skills in a "real, live situation," she said.

"The affair was held at my home, and the total cost was borne by Mr. Correa's campaign," Smith added.

Chris Leo, Correa's chief of staff, said he could understand administrators' concerns about students' working for a political event. But Leo said he doesn't feel students were involved because they just prepared the food and did not actually serve it at the event,

"I can see where they're coming from," he said. "But we got an invoice for the food and we're going to pay it . . . and it will come out of our campaign account." The students' labor, which the campaign was not billed for, will not be recorded as a gift to the campaign because their work was part of their education, Leo said.

Freeman said she became concerned about the fund-raiser after she heard about two Southern California public school bands that caused controversy by their involvement in Republican Party election efforts.

Members of the Canyon High School band in Anaheim earned money for their school's music program by walking precincts for the Republican party on election night. In La Canada Flintridge, members of the high school band were released early from school to play at an event for presidential candidate George W. Bush. Though students defended the activities as civic events and, in the case of Canyon High School, as a much needed fund-raiser, education lawyers blasted the activities as potentially illegal partisan politicking. Administrators at both schools promised such activities would never occur again.

The state's regional occupational programs provide vocational training at nominal cost to high school students and adults. A key component of many of the programs involves teaching students on-the-job skills, said Thomas Kurtz, superintendent of the North Orange County program, which serves the Anaheim, Placentia-Yorba Linda, Brea-Olinda, Los Alamitos and Fullerton school districts and is one of the largest vocational programs in California.

Program instructors must make sure the students' work--whether constructing barbecue pits for community parks, building walls for nonprofits or reading to toddlers in child-care programs--fits into their instructional program, Kurtz said.

Instructors are also expected to guard against students' being put to work for free in the guise of learning trades. Kurtz noted that trade programs have refused job offers this year because the work would not have taught students anything.

Because catering is an integral part of learning the culinary trade, however, teachers in the 3-year-old culinary program felt that cooking the food for Smith's event would be appropriate, Kurtz said. He said he investigated the affair and decided his teachers need guidelines.

"We had looked at it as more of a private party," he added. "But it did turn out as a fund-raiser, so in that regard, we're going to put together a policy."

However, Kurtz said the students' participation was legal.

Students in the class could not be reached for comment.

Roger Wolfertz, the attorney for the state Department of Education, agreed. The Education Code prohibits schools from promoting activities that urge the support or defeat of any candidate, but just because students cooked for Correa's fund-raiser does not mean they were working on his behalf, Wolfertz said. "The law is murky," Wolfertz added.

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