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Orange Board Needs 2-Year Plan

Schools: New trustees, who face voters again in '03, must retain teachers and keep the district solvent.

November 08, 2001|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a new majority solidly in place, the Orange school board now has two years to show whether its more union-friendly approach will bring peace to a school system that has struggled through one protracted battle after another.

A recall election in June changed the board's majority from one supported by the Christian conservative movement in Orange County to one backed by the teachers union. On Tuesday, voters solidified the new board's makeup by re-electing two members who first took their seats after the recall, and voting in two new trustees from the same slate.

With two years before the next board election, residents now will see whether a change in several key policies in the 30,000-student district will staunch the exodus of educators while keeping the schools solvent.

And one former trustee who once ruled the board from the front of the room faces the uncomfortable knowledge that for the next two years, she will be the gadfly in the back.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 10, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
School board--A headline and story Thursday about the Orange Unified School District incorrectly implied that the board's new majority had two years in power before the next election. Although there is an election in 2003, the terms of the four elected this week expire in 2005.

But former board member Linda Davis says her presence is needed. The new board majority, which received hefty campaign contributions from the teachers union, could end up giving away the store in order to appease faculty demands for better pay and benefits, previous board members said.

"It may take the community to experience what we experienced 10 years ago [when the district struggled financially] to wake up," said Davis, who was recalled in June and unsuccessfully sought to regain her seat from trustee Kathy Moffat in Tuesday's election. "We will continue to be watchdogs over the school board. I live here; it is in my blood."

Moffat said she welcomes constructive criticism, but she doesn't want the type of politically motivated dissent that has dogged the board in the past.

"The new board," she said , "will welcome differing points of view."

Incumbent Melissa Taylor Smith, a member of the new majority, successfully fought off a comeback attempt by recalled trustee Martin Jacobson. And challengers Kimberlee Nichols and Rick Ledesma beat trustees Terri Sargeant and Kathy Ward, members of the old majority. The margins of victory ranged up to 30 percentage points.

The winners will be sworn in at the board's meeting Dec. 13.

Both sides are already clashing over the district's finances.

After the recall election, the new board commissioned a study on district operations. Unveiled last month, the resulting report said Orange Unified had consistently overestimated expenses, underestimated revenue and kept unnecessarily high levels of emergency reserves.

Olav Sorenson, an assistant professor at UCLA's graduate school of management and author of the report, said if those practices were corrected, the district could free another $7 million a year for other expenses.

But that report is already being questioned within the district.

Linda Gibbs, the district's director of financial services, said in a districtwide memo last week that Sorenson showed a "a lack of understanding of . . . school finance or the [district's] budget priorities."

Gibbs declined to comment publicly on the Sorenson report, but her memo says the district has $2.7 million in reserve that could go to teacher salaries. She warned against following Sorenson's recommendations, which she said could run the district into insolvency.

Gibbs and Sorenson differ on what levels of emergency reserves are prudent and in their estimates of costs for services the district provides. Navigating the budget will be one of the first items in the new board's agenda as the district continues to negotiate teacher pay with the local union.

Ledesma said the new board will tackle the issue of the teachers' contract because it is an educational priority, not political payback. "We need to improve the quality of education in our school district and we need to have more competitive salaries," he said. "We are not beholden to the union. . . . We are beholden to the community."

Bob Viviano, a 10-year veteran of the board and its current president, said the new board is gathering facts to lay out its course.

"The election was a landslide mandate," he said. "The people who have been elected are all of very high integrity."

Backers of the previous board say they will wait and see.

"I want to see [the new board] put the $7 million into [teachers' salaries]) immediately," said Kathy Moran, a former salary negotiator for the old board. "Then the community will see the ramifications for that."

Union president and district teacher Paul Pruss countered that the new board can be counted on to act responsibly, including in its dealings with the union. "We don't have to worry about the new board, and we no longer have to worry about the old board."

Still, Moran, who has been a regular and vocal presence in the audience during board meetings since the recall, says the voters have spoken and should get what they want.

And Jacobson, Davis' frequent ally in the old board majority, said he is ready for a rest.

"I wish the new board a lot of success," Jacobson said Wednesday. "My desire for Orange Unified is for it to be the best district, and I hope the new board does well."

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