A board majority in a small Orange County school district on Monday risked millions of dollars in funding and a possible state takeover by voting to hold firm to its view that a California antidiscrimination policy violates Christian principles.
In a series of votes over recent months, the three-trustee majority on the five-member board has made the Westminster School District the only one of 1,056 in California to resist a state law that lets students and staff define their own gender. Such a policy, the trustees say, could lead to promotion of a transsexual agenda in the classroom, cross-dressing on campus and boys and girls mixing in school bathrooms.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
School desegregation -- An article in Section A on April 13 about the Westminster School District's opposition to a state anti-discrimination law reported that a groundbreaking 1946 school desegregation case from Westminster was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was resolved by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The stand has prompted state Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O'Connell to threaten withdrawal of $7.8 million in annual funding if the district failed to comply with the law by midnight Monday. It also has prompted state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) to propose a state takeover of the district and angry parents to launch recalls against two of the three trustees whose terms do not expire this year.
The result is the latest skirmish in the nation's culture wars -- a battle between local and higher authorities not unlike that waged by the mayor of San Francisco over gay marriage.
In this case, however, the three trustees are fighting considerable community opposition. Even parents in traditionally conservative Orange County who are sympathetic to the trustees' concerns question their willingness to place school funding at risk.
"My kids are going to suffer because of the three village idiots," said parent Louise Morley before Monday's vote. "You can't bring religious beliefs into public education."
And Westminster Mayor Margie L. Rice, a self-described born-again Christian, said she would be willing to help change the state law -- but until it is changed, she told trustees, "Your responsibility now is to obey the law."
In an emergency meeting Monday before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200, the board's three defiant trustees voted for a revised policy that grants some of the state's demands but draws the line at letting students define their gender.
The state is reviewing the district's revised policy, but O'Connell, the state schools chief, issued a statement late Monday saying he is not impressed. "Every child in this state deserves unequivocal protection from discrimination," he wrote. "I am disappointed that in 2004 this fundamental civil right is being debated."
'Price on Morality'
The three trustees, led by board member Judy Ahrens, have described their position as a stand against moral erosion. "According to the people who are angry at us, there is a price on morality," Ahrens said in March. "I say: 'Our kids are not for sale.' "
Neither Ahrens, who campaigned for office on a platform that included opposition to the state's antidiscrimination wording, nor the other two trustees in the majority said anything during Monday's meeting to explain their position. Police escorted them out of the district office to their cars after the meeting and they all refused to comment to reporters.
Board President James Reed, who has opposed the majority's stance, said he was frustrated. "I would rather have the state dissolve the board authority and go from there," Reed said. "I worry about what other laws these board members may be willing to break."
Once a bedroom community for predominantly white aerospace and industrial workers, Westminster has more than tripled in population, to more than 88,000, since its incorporation in 1957. Its demographics have also dramatically shifted: Nearly 40% of residents are of Asian descent, with the city's Little Saigon district boasting the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the United States. Politically, it remains conservative, with a plurality of voters registered Republican.
The district, with 17 schools, serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Westminster has had its share of decisive moments, when residents have had to decide whether to accept change or draw the line. In 1946, for example, the Mendez family won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended the Westminster School District's policy of sending whites and Latinos to separate high schools.
The case resulted in a court order that desegregated all schools in Orange County, which in turn energized a statewide movement and lead to the eventual prohibition of segregation in California.
On Monday, parent Coni Kohan reminded trustees of that court decision. "Once again, it's us versus the world," she said. "And I think we're wrong."
In 1999, the City Council barred display of the flag of the former nation of South Vietnam on city light poles, angering many in the city's burgeoning population of Vietnamese emigres.