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The Region

School District Sees a Return to Normalcy

After the recall of trustee Nativo Lopez, Santa Ana Unified officials say they've moved beyond politics and strong-arm tactics.

February 08, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Only a handful of people turned up last month for a board of education meeting at Santa Ana Unified School District's headquarters. The front two rows of seats were empty as staff members gave presentations to trustees on the district's dire economic situation and an extensive construction project. As the hours dragged on, eyes grew weary. People yawned.

The scene contrasted dramatically to the upheaval a year earlier, with the approaching recall of then-trustee Nativo Lopez. Residents packed the semimonthly meetings with protest signs in tow. Trustees engaged the crowd in shouting matches. Recommendations from nervous staffers went ignored by the board's majority.

At the center of the turmoil was the strong-willed Lopez, a passionate advocate of immigrant rights, who attempted to pit the city's working-class Latino population against what he called Santa Ana's wealthy establishment.

He polarized the community and fractured the district by introducing immigrant politics into the schools.

"Things had deteriorated," said trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji, who was elected shortly before the recall. "Things were at such a bad level. If the recall had not happened, the district would have gone down the tubes very quickly."

One year after the removal of Lopez, school officials say they have moved beyond the politics and strong-arm tactics that paralyzed one of the state's largest school districts. Trustee John Palacio -- a Lopez ally -- remains a lone dissenting voice, but officials say they are enjoying a renewed sense of normalcy.

After a long and contentious battle that drew national attention, Lopez suffered a decisive defeat last February, with nearly 70% of voters choosing to recall him. Lopez had been accused of promoting bilingual education, which the state had mostly banned. He was also blamed, in large part, for the slow pace of expansion and construction of schools in the overcrowded district, which serves more than 60,000 students.

Although many Lopez detractors came from Santa Ana's relatively wealthy and white neighborhoods, in the end, Lopez also failed to win the support of the city's large Latino community.

A year later, district officials say they have complied with state law by tightening admission to bilingual classes. And the $300-million-plus schools construction project, after being scaled back, has begun to pick up momentum, with three schools under construction and several others being modified.

But many in the district say the real changes are less tangible.

Two days before the recall, district Supt. Al Mijares accused Lopez and Palacio of "horrific ethical violations" in what he called their micromanagement of the district's construction project and attempts to direct the hiring of staff and vendors.

In recent interviews, Mijares, current trustees and administrators said the district is functioning in a dramatically more even-keeled way than a year ago, when they said politics reigned and Palacio and Lopez consistently abused the board's limited powers.

School officials said there is now a clear separation of staff and board members. In contrast, they said, Palacio -- at Lopez's behest -- last year would often arrive unannounced at staff meetings and reprimand administrators or staff who questioned his directives. Palacio, Mijares said, was quick to remind people that he and Lopez held enough control over other trustees to dictate decisions.

"They stepped outside of their roles ... to seize control of the organizational aspects of the school district. It created a degree of pathology that cut all the way to the classroom," Mijares said of Palacio and Lopez. "My staff would report to me, but they were afraid of them."

Since the recall, officials and trustees said, the district's lines of authority have been rebuilt: Trustees passed a strict code of ethics in April 2003 to define their role as an elected body charged with making policy decisions based on staff recommendations; Mijares has reasserted his authority, while staff members have been left alone to do their work.

"The most important thing is that morale is back," said Jerry Hills, the district's manager of construction. "Morale is high again."

Lopez did not respond to repeated interview requests but has defended his actions in the past, blaming slow construction on Mijares and staff, and defending bilingual admission as a parent's right.

Palacio declined to comment on his relationship with Lopez, but denied the claims against himself. He said he attended staff meetings only if invited and blamed Mijares and staff incompetence for district woes. A board-commissioned investigation by an independent law firm, however, concluded that Palacio had engaged in a "pattern of ... verbally abusive behavior toward staff as well as interference with administrators' execution of their job duties."

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