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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Whispers and Facts

September 29, 2002

Whisper, whisper, whisper. For at least two years, voices in Santa Ana have been whispering about political payback in the schools. In stage whispers loud enough to hear in the next town, they accused some school board members of using the district's $145-million school-construction bond issue to give political cronies lucrative contracts.

No one made a formal allegation, certainly not by name. No one offered evidence, a document, a taped conversation or backup witnesses to illegal activity.

After an investigation prompted by a vague and anonymous letter, the Orange County district attorney concluded this month that there was no "firsthand" evidence of a crime.

Good, though the D.A.'s conclusion that there was no evidence of a crime shouldn't be read as an endorsement of the way the Santa Ana board of trustees has conducted itself. Now Santa Ana voters can conduct their hotly contested board election without slimy rumors fouling the waters. As they do so, they can remember some indisputable actions involving the school board and its bond issue.

Like the time two years ago that slow-moving trustees lost millions in matching state funds for construction projects. Much of the delay came from a move by a majority led by John Palacio to create a new selection and design process. The district knew time was short and needlessly fumbled around with procedures, while the Capistrano Unified School District, under the same time strictures, scrambled and got the money.

Santa Ana has another chance at state money with a new bond measure on the November ballot, but the loss from that first mistake cannot be regained. Rising construction costs in the last two years already have meant pulling at least two schools off the list.

Santa Ana voters, not a well-off group for the most part, put their faith and their wallets into building better schools for children who attend some of the state's most crowded campuses. And now they aren't getting the full goods for their money.

Then came the time that trustees were screening architectural firms for the contracts--an unusual task for trustees, who usually leave the job to staff, and a major reason the district missed the state's application deadline. At just that time, the bidding firms were getting calls from selected trustees, pressing them for campaign contributions. A couple of companies felt so pressured that they filed formal complaints.

Most of the reported beggary came from Nativo V. Lopez, whose campaign took in nearly $24,000 from architects. The practice is legal, and Lopez--who now faces a recall campaign over a controversial school site and English-only classes--said he was just doing what politicians across the nation do to raise campaign funds. True, many politicians have been rightly criticized for an equally poor mixing of public business and their own interests. But the connection between bid and solicitation in this case was disturbingly direct.

Two-thirds of the winning firms had made donations to at least one trustee. And thus were the rumors born.

The election process should be untainted by rumors. Besides, with schools management like this, who needs rumors?

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