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Orange County

School Board Race Draws 5

The candidates -- two of them incumbents -- will compete for two seats in the turbulent Westminster district.

August 07, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

After tumultuous debate over a state anti-discrimination law that upended the Westminster School District and triggered a recall campaign, five candidates will compete in the November election for two trustee seats.

Two of the five -- Jo-Ann Purcell, a retired teacher, and Helena Rutkowski, a former teacher assistant -- are incumbents who sparred angrily over the board majority's stand against gender language in the state law. And while their three competitors say they were planning to run even before the dispute, they acknowledge that it provided added incentive.

Michael Verrengia, an electrician who lost his school board seat by a slim margin in 2002, will try to reclaim it. Union contract negotiator Sergio Contreras is making his third run after two defeats. And, if elected, newcomer Peter Chau Nguyen, a real estate agent, would be the only Vietnamese school trustee in a city with a large Vietnamese population.

Rutkowski did not return calls for comment. Purcell and the three other challengers all say they were angered over how Rutkowski, Judy Ahrens and Blossie Marquez put the district on a collision course with education officials over the state law meant to protect gays, transsexuals and others from discrimination.

Citing their Christian beliefs, the three trustees said the state regulations immorally allowed students and teachers to define their own gender.

"When I saw this whole fiasco, it pushed me harder [to run]," Contreras, 30, said. "It scares me that they would play such games." Contreras has a sister who attends school in the district, which serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

With state officials threatening to withhold millions of dollars in funding, the board majority ultimately avoided the sanctions by revising district policy enough to technically comply with the law.

Regardless, angry parents and teachers have pursued a recall campaign against Ahrens and Marquez.

Recall organizers, who are supporting Verrengia's candidacy, say they have collected about 5,000 of the 7,200 voter signatures needed by mid-September to force a vote on the recall.

Like Contreras, Nguyen, 40, said he has long wanted a seat on the school board. With a daughter about to enter the district, he said he grew exasperated as the gender debate consumed the community and damaged the board's dignity.

"We should let our kids focus on their education," he said.

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