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ORANGE COUNTY | ORANGE COUNTY ELECTIONS 2002

Mixed Signals in School Board Race

One targeted Santa Ana trustee leads, another trails. In Garden Grove, one candidate could make history.

November 06, 2002|Daniel Yi and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

Embattled Santa Ana school board President John Palacio led in early returns Tuesday night, while trustee Nadia Maria Davis -- who was also targeted by a pair of well-financed challengers backed by the city's power elite -- trailed in her bid for reelection.

In Garden Grove, Lan Nguyen led in his bid to become the nation's first Vietnamese American school board member, while in Anaheim, outspoken school board member Harald G. Martin was losing his seat with part of the vote counted.

But voters appeared eager to finance repairs and new school facilities with bond measures headed for victory in four Orange County school districts.

In the Santa Ana Unified School District, the fight for the seats of Palacio and Davis was part of a larger struggle to wrest control of the five-member board from the current majority that also includes trustee Nativo Lopez. Round two is scheduled for Feb. 4, when Lopez, serving his second term, faces a recall election.

Former trustee Audrey Y. Noji appeared headed for a comeback, holding onto second place in the eight-candidate race, after losing a reelection bid in 2000. The results suggested that the overcrowded and underachieving school district would continue to be mired in a political battle for majority control of the board.

"It is obviously too early to tell, but it shows the message that we tried to share was very compelling," an optimistic Palacio said. "That the district is moving in the right direction."

Critics say Lopez, Palacio and Davis have polarized the heavily Latino, 62,000-student district along ethnic lines as schools struggle with overcrowded classrooms and academic scores that are among the lowest in the state.

Lopez and Palacio counter that they are being targeted for representing working-class Latino and immigrant families at the expense of a city establishment more interested in gentrification.

Behind the effort to oust the three are an alliance of angry parents, City Hall leaders and Ron Unz, the businessman behind Proposition 227, the 1998 measure that curbed bilingual education in the state.

Unz and recall campaign organizers accuse Lopez of promoting bilingual education in the district in defiance of the measure -- a charge Lopez denies. Unz donated money and equipment to the effort to recall Lopez and $18,000 to challengers Lupe Moreno and Oscar Garza.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido and Councilman Brett Franklin have backed Moreno and Garza, who both have agreed to reconsider controversial plans for a new school in the affluent north end of the city.

Last year, the city approved a luxury-home development for the lot near the Santa Ana Freeway, but the school district took the land through eminent domain for an elementary school. In 1999, the district passed a $145-million construction bond and is expected to start several projects, including expansions of existing campuses, in coming months.

Lopez and Palacio have accused north-end critics of opposing the school because the district's students are mostly children of working-class Latinos. Their opponents say a school isn't needed in the area and accuse the trustees of turning the plan into an ethnic issue.

In Garden Grove Unified, Nguyen also was poised to become the first minority on the board, which oversees a district in which 72% of the students are not white.

Nguyen was leading Bob Harden and Terry Cantrell, incumbents elected eight years ago with the support of a county organization that sought to create a countywide network of conservative school board members. The top two vote-getters would get seats on the five-member board.

"If I end up winning, it's obvious that the votes didn't just come from the Vietnamese community," Nguyen said. "It's a call for change, an indication that people in all sectors want to try something new."

In nearby Anaheim Union High School District, a dozen candidates sought three seats, including one held by Martin, who has proposed policies aimed at keeping illegal-immigrant children out of schools.

In the lead was incumbent Thomas "Hoagy" Holguin, appointed two years ago and currently the only Latino on a school board where Latinos once formed a majority.

Other leading candidates were Robert Stewart, who resigned from the board two years ago and wants to improve education of academic basics, and Denise Mansfield-Reinking, a former Northern California school board member who supports increased parental control over district decisions.

All four of the county's local school facilities bond measures appeared headed for easy passage.

The Tustin Unified School District sought $80 million for maintenance and infrastructure improvements at its 20 oldest schools.

The Centralia School District's $17.5-million bond measure would fund renovations at district support facilities and at nine schools, all built from 1955 to 1968.

Rancho Santiago Community College District's $337-million measure would fund nearly 30 construction and renovation projects, including classrooms to replace trailers at Santiago Canyon College and a math and science facility at Santa Ana College.

Coast Community College District's measure would provide $370 million to replace and upgrade facilities at Coastline, Golden West and Orange Coast colleges.

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Times staff writer Mike Anton contributed to this report.

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