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New Santa Ana Trustee to Reexamine Top Issues

Rob Richardson says a new majority will reconsider building a school in upscale area.

February 06, 2003|Daniel Yi and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

A day after voters overwhelmingly agreed to remove Nativo V. Lopez from the Santa Ana school board, his successor vowed to revisit major issues facing the state's fifth-largest school district.

Rob Richardson, a former trustee and councilman who was elected to replace Lopez in Tuesday's recall election, said he expects to forge a new majority on Santa Ana Unified's five-member board of education when he takes office this month. He said he'll reconsider Lopez-era decisions, including one to put a school near Santa Ana's upscale northern neighborhoods.

"It's not Griset school," Richardson bristled Wednesday when asked about Lorin Griset Elementary School, for which construction was set to begin within a few weeks.

"It's a proposed site. We have to look at that site and see if it's the best use of our resources -- if it is the place a school is most needed."

The controversial school site helped fuel a contentious recall campaign that began last March with a small group of parents and residents accusing Lopez of promoting bilingual education at the expense of academic performance in the overcrowded, mostly poor, mostly Latino district.

However, the contest assumed broader dimensions, underscored by the more than $400,000 in political contributions that have poured in from across the country on both sides of the referendum.

To his supporters, many of whom are Latino community leaders and labor activists, Lopez is a tireless advocate for immigrants and working-class families who has been vilified for his aggressive style. To his critics, Lopez is a race monger who allegedly used his elected position to gain political power through cronyism and the awarding of district contracts to campaign contributors.

On Wednesday, Lopez, head of the immigrant-rights group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana who was first elected to the board in 1996, defended his record and said he hasn't ruled out running again.

For now, he'll continue with Hermandad, which provides educational services and legal referrals to immigrants.

"I was organizing immigrant workers prior to being on the board," said Lopez, 51. "My role has been cast for 30 years and that is not going to change."

With 70.6% of people voting to recall him, Lopez's resounding defeat emboldened many district employees who said Wednesday that they had felt under the thumb during the reign of Lopez and his ally on the board, trustee John Palacio.

"Who hurts Latinos more but the Latino leaders who give Latinos a bad name?" said an uncharacteristically outspoken Lucy Araujo-Cook, the district's public-information officer.

Palacio, who survived a contested reelection bid in November, could not be reached Wednesday. Lopez, Palacio and board President Sal Tinajero often voted as a bloc.

Many in the district said they hoped Lopez's ouster would bring a new era.

The mood was upbeat in the district offices, according to several people who were at district headquarters Wednesday.

"We need to immediately build public confidence in the district," said Supt. Al Mijares, who just two days before the election issued an unprecedented public rebuke of Lopez and Palacio, accusing them of "horrific ethical violations" by micromanaging and intimidating district staffers.

"The lines of leadership are very thin and snap in an instant when there is an ethical violation," said Mijares, who has headed the district staff since 1994. "The only way to restore that is to reaffirm ethical standards before the public."

Mijares and several board members said Wednesday that they plan to draft a policy to spell out the role trustees will play as overseers of the district's administration.

Lopez and Palacio have countered it was Mijares' lack of leadership that forced them to get more closely involved.

While Richardson knows the coalition-building ropes from previous service on the board and City Council, it remains to be seen whether he has the votes to set the district's course.

Several parents, teachers and administrators were rallying around Mijares on Wednesday, encouraging the 49-year-old career educator to return the troubled district's attention to educational issues.

"I think people are tired of the bickering and infighting," said Kim Gerda, a district parent. "They want something positive to rally around."

The district, although well-performing against others with similar numbers of low-income students and those still learning English, continues to post low test scores.

Many have blamed the performance on the number of students in bilingual education, about 10% of the district's 61,000 students.

Ron Unz, the co-author of Proposition 227, which sought to curtail bilingual instruction in the state, put more than $100,000 of his own money into the recall race.

Mijares said the district has not violated Proposition 227, but he has "become increasingly concerned with the underexposure of the English language in our schools.... It is my goal that students emerge from our school system speaking impeccable English."

Richardson and current board members Audrey Y. Noji and Rosemarie Avila said Wednesday they fully support Mijares. Board President Sal Tinajero, who has been critical of Mijares in the past, said he is against any attempts to fire Mijares.

"There will be a greater awareness and willingness to work together," Noji said.

"There isn't an undercurrent of control going on, of collusion among the board majority."

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