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Ousted Trustees Fight to Retake Seats in Orange

Education: New majority hopes to cement control of divided district by defeating more of the old guard.

November 01, 2001|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been just five months since a recall campaign transformed the Orange Unified School District board of trustees. But the school system that gained national notoriety for a clash over gay student clubs is bracing for more conflict.

In yet another rancorous campaign leading up to an election Tuesday, two of three trustees ousted in June seek to reclaim their seats, and the forces behind the recall are now supporting a slate of candidates they hope will solidify their hard-won new majority. Orange Unified trustees are elected from each of seven district areas.

"If the old board gets back in, teachers will leave in droves," said Melinda Moore, a local parent who helped spur June's recall campaign. "We don't want to go back [to the previous board]. We can't go back."

Moore and others charge that the old board majority had an imperious manner and showed little respect for parents or teachers. Trustees from the previous majority, however, have accused the local teachers union of dividing the district in an attempt to gain control of the board.

Martin Jacobson, one of the trustees ousted in June, wants his old seat back from Melissa Taylor Smith.

"The union spells 'respect' M-O-N-E-Y," he said during a recent interview. "The union's priority is not education. It is not children. The union is about more money for less work and we should kick them out of our community."

Smith, a Presbyterian pastor who has two children in district schools, countered that such rhetoric is exactly what motivated many parents to side with the teachers.

"It wasn't the pay issue alone," she said. "The old board treated teachers with disregard. Orange Unified is overdue for a healthy change of direction."

In all, 10 candidates are competing for four open seats. Another recalled trustee, Linda Davis, seeks the seat she lost to Kathy Moffat. John Ortega, who replaced Maureen Aschoff in June, need not seek reelection until 2003.

Meanwhile, trustees Terri Sargeant and Kathy Ward, members of the old majority who were not targeted by the recall campaign, are facing challenges from Kimberlee Nichols and former trustee Rick Ledesma, both of whom are backed by the teachers union and its supporters. For Ledesma, this is the second showdown with Ward, who beat him in the 1997 election.

Alan Irish, an accountant, is also running for Ward's seat, and retired engineer Edward Priegel is the longshot third candidate for Sargeant's seat. Neither Irish nor Priegel is backed by the recall camp or supporters of the old majority.

The all-or-nothing contest could again turn the tables in this troubled district serving 30,000 students in Orange, Villa Park and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove.

At least in terms of funding, the recall forces have an edge over the old board majority this time around. Moffat, Smith, Nichols and Ledesma have raised more than $125,000 for the upcoming election. The four members from the former majority have raised slightly less than $21,000, including $11,200 in personal loans, according to the most recent campaign contribution filings.

"Once you lose an election, everyone takes a step back," said Robert Fautex, former treasurer of Stop the Union Takeover committee, which failed to halt the June recall despite raising $118,840. "We are hoping for the best," said Fautex, who is helping in the campaigns of the former majority trustees. "We are hoping the voters of the district recognize the union has taken over again."

The state and local teachers unions, which helped raise more than half of the $85,000 spent to oust the three members in June, have contributed an additional $45,000 in money and services for the upcoming election.

The recall forces, made up of teachers and some parents, say the amount of contributions for their side underscores the growing support for the new direction the district has taken since June.

"There is no support for them," Moore said of the old board. "You need an army of supporters. I'm doing all I can, putting up signs, walking the precincts."

Moore and like-minded parents complain that the old board was more preoccupied with gay student clubs than the exodus of teachers from the district.

Orange Unified gained national notoriety in 1999, when the education board blocked the formation of a gay student support club at El Modena High School. A lawsuit followed, and the club was eventually allowed as long as there was no discussion of sex.

It was only one chapter in a district where controversy seems more common than milk spills in a kindergarten class.

Including accusations that the new board ignored open-government laws and even an ongoing grand jury investigation into alleged violations of the election code during the recall campaign, there is little in Orange Unified that does not become political fodder for one side to try to discredit the other.

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