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Ethnic Issues Cloud Santa Ana School Races

Eight are competing for two seats. Among them are two incumbents in a board majority that's a lightning rod for controversy.

October 21, 2002|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana school board member Nativo Lopez describes the Nov. 5 election in epic terms.

"This," said the besieged trustee, "is a fight for the soul of Santa Ana."

That's about the only thing he and his detractors are likely to agree on.

In one of the most Latino cities in the nation, the school board election campaigns have turned into a rancorous referendum on ethnic politics, with such charged issues as bilingual education and socioeconomic differences thrown in.

Lopez, midway into his second term, isn't even on the ballot -- yet. But a months-long recall campaign against him, poised for a showdown at the polls as early as January, is intricately linked to a broader challenge to the board's current majority.

Trustees John Palacio and Nadia Maria Davis, viewed by many as Lopez's allies on the five-member Santa Ana Unified board, face tough reelection opposition in the Nov. 5 balloting. They are among eight candidates vying for two seats. The top two vote getters win.

Palacio, Davis and Lopez maintain that they are independent leaders with overlapping agendas, but their political opponents see them as a collective target.

"If John or Nadia are reelected, we'll immediately file for their recall," said Tim Whitacre, a campaign strategist for the group seeking Lopez's ouster.

The critics charge that Lopez and Palacio, with quiet assent from Davis, have incited ethnic discord in the district by painting any opposition to the board majority -- be it over bilingual education or where to build new schools -- as an attack on Latino working families.

"Whenever they need to gather support for their cause, the race card is pulled," said Robert Munoz, a social worker and Latino candidate for the school board who said he finds offensive the notion that people should align along ethnic lines. "We need to think of the district as a whole," he said. "We need to look at the city as a whole."

For decades, Santa Ana, with its central location and relatively cheap housing, has been a draw for immigrants, mostly from Mexico. More than half of the city's population is foreign-born, and 76% is Latino. The burgeoning population -- from 200,000 in 1980 to 340,000 now -- has strained the capacity of schools. More than 80% of Santa Ana campuses have more students than they were designed for.

If the city is majority Latino, Santa Ana public schools are overwhelmingly so. Of the district's 62,000 students, 92% are Latino, and 65% speak primarily Spanish.

It is to serve this larger Latino constituency that Lopez, a longtime immigrant-rights activist, ran for the school board in 1996, he said. His election came at the same time Loretta Sanchez defeated veteran conservative Robert K. Dornan for the 46th Congressional District seat in central Orange County and seemed to signal a surge in Latino political participation. Since then, other Latinos have won seats on both the Santa Ana school board and City Council, but the two elected bodies have often been at odds. Competing visions from City Hall and the school board in many ways illustrate the city's struggle with ethnicity, class and political representation.

When the crowded district -- which passed a $145-million bond in 1999 to build new schools and upgrade and expand existing ones -- tried to buy a vacant lot in the city's north end, many residents in the relatively affluent surrounding neighborhoods cried foul. They said the campus, named after conservative former Mayor Lorin Griset, would serve few children in their neighborhoods and bring traffic and pollution to their quiet streets. Munoz was one of them.

"We need to bring the schools to where the children are, not the children to where the schools are," the candidate said.

The City Council, which had approved a luxury home complex for the 9-acre lot, sided with residents. City officials continue to suggest that the district buy and tear down some apartments elsewhere for new schools or build on existing campuses instead of forcing projects on resistant neighborhoods.

The district took the property anyway -- through eminent domain -- earlier this year.

Lopez and Palacio, elected in 1998, see in city officials' priorities a barely disguised effort to shift the burden to their students and Latino immigrant families, many of whom live in the sort of apartments the city suggests demolishing. They charge that City Hall, despite being led by Mayor Miguel Pulido, a Latino, is dominated by the interests of an entrenched establishment more interested in gentrification than the welfare of its lower-income Latino residents.

"We represent the present and the future of Santa Ana," Palacio said. "Mayor Pulido represents the past."

Davis, for her part, said she is trying to be a unifying force. She shares Palacio and Lopez's dedication to serving Latino and immigrant families, she said, but disagrees with what she calls their divisive styles.

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