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Lively Races for Orange County School Boards

Contests in Anaheim and Garden Grove have the potential to reshape boards where white conservatives now form the majorities.

October 27, 2002|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Provoking people has never been a problem for Anaheim Union High School District board member Harald Martin.

The man who made headlines when he advocated compensation from other countries for educating undocumented immigrants knows that ousting him is the main draw for some candidates in Orange County's most crowded school board race.

Of the dozen candidates seeking three seats, at least a few say Martin's influence on the board should end. On his ballot statement, business owner Amin David gives as his first priority: to "keep schools safe and hold Harald Martin accountable."

The Anaheim district is one of 24 Orange County school districts with races on the Nov. 5 ballot. The candidates run the gamut of community leaders, former board members, retirees and incumbents.

Although many parent and teacher groups in the county say the majority of contests are bland affairs, they say the Anaheim and Garden Grove races have the potential to reshape boards where white conservatives now form the majorities.

"We have the potential to become a historic district rather than one that's a laughingstock," said David, president of the Latino networking group Los Amigos of Orange County.

In the Garden Grove Unified School District, attorney Lan Nguyen is making history as the country's first Vietnamese American to run for school board, according to the Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials, a constituency group of the National League of Cities.

Nguyen is vying for one of two seats. Also running are a basketball coach and two incumbents who were elected eight years ago with the support of an organization that sought to create a county network of conservative school board members.

Martin said despite the outpouring of candidates trying to supplant him, he doesn't regret anything he has done during his eight years on the board. "I'm a horrible politician because I tell people exactly what I believe," he said. And the turbulence may not be over if board President Katherine Smith wins her dark-horse bid for state school superintendent and steps down, leaving an open seat.

While Martin's outspoken convictions have energized challengers, some candidates and community members also object to the way three of the five current trustees got on the board -- by appointment. They contend the process for the most recent appointments -- Dennis Doi and Brian O'Neal -- did not include a public request for applications.

Appointed candidates Doi, who took office in July, and Thomas "Hoagy" Holguin, who has been on the board for two years, are on the ballot. O'Neal took over for a trustee whose seat is up for election in 2004.

"[David] is only complaining because myself and O'Neal are not Latino," said Doi, a retired electrician who advocates increased parental involvement and more programs for non-college-bound students. "If it were him and another Latino appointed the same way, you can bet he wouldn't say anything."

Candidate Christine Villegas said a change of leadership is needed to get the school district moving in the right direction.

"There needs to be someone on the board who can get that focus off race," said Villegas, a planning consultant to the city of Anaheim. "The school board should be ignoring [race], and instead tackling what it can do to help the community."

Villegas said she is running to ensure that the district offers opportunities to all students.

The three incumbents have put a priority on offering vocational classes for those who aren't college-bound, said Holguin, who owns a commercial contracting business.

David said that those goals would be better accomplished if there were Spanish-speaking board members.

Martin said his emphasis on students' citizenship status is tied to his desire to provide pupils their entitled share of funding: "I'm going to keep fighting that battle because every dollar spent on a student who is in this country illegally is one stolen from another student who is rightfully here."

"I'm constantly working at trying to move the education of students into the forefront and the bureaucracy into the background," said Martin, an Anaheim police officer.

The Anaheim Secondary Teachers Assn. has endorsed one candidate, restaurant owner Frank Cozza Jr., who backs efforts to retain enthusiastic teachers and increased board accountability for test scores.

"This one candidate in particular seems to have no hidden agendas nor any alignment with current board members," said Carol Comparsi, the group's president.

Other candidates include Denise Mansfield-Reinking, a former board member in Northern California's Rio Linda Union School District, who supports improved after-school programs and increased parental control over district decisions.

David Vill, a retired teacher, said school boards should make a greater effort to explore other districts' policies to create "best practices" types of programs.

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