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Orange County

Trustees Meet Again Over Letter

Westminster board lets the public comment on mailing its account of the gender controversy. Again it votes to send it.

June 19, 2004|Arlene Martinez | Times Staff Writer

Facing litigation by the Orange County district attorney's office, trustees in the Westminster School District on Friday affirmed their earlier decision to distribute a letter explaining their controversial position on a state law -- but, this time, after allowing public discussion on the issue.

The trustees had been told that their earlier decision to send the letter violated state law that governs public meetings because the public had not been allowed to read the letter and weigh in before trustees voted to distribute it.

In the letter, the board majority defends its decision to challenge the wording of a state law intended to protect gays, transsexuals and others from harassment. They opposed the law's provision allowing students and teachers to define their own gender.

To satisfy prosecutors, trustees met in special session Friday to open the matter for public debate. They got an earful.

"How much are you willing to spend to advance your agenda?" asked parent Patsy Ashcraft, to loud applause from a crowd of about 45.

She was one of five speakers who opposed the letter, calling it a waste of money and little more than a political statement.

The mailing will cost the district about $6,000.

Two of the trustees -- Judy Ahrens and Blossie Marquez-- are facing a recall campaign.

The third trustee forming the majority, Helena Rutkowski, is not targeted because her term expires in November.

Ahrens said the letter was necessary to correct false information and to begin the "healing process" in the feuding community.

Marquez, who murmured and shook her head disapprovingly during the public comments about the letter, told the audience: "If you don't like it, that's too bad.... We're going to send the letter."

Her comment was answered with gasps and angry shouts.

By the same 3-to-2 vote as their initial June 3 decision, trustees authorized sending the letter to 7,500 district families.

After the meeting, Thomas Crofoot, the senior county prosecutor who had warned the trustees that they had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, said that he now considered the matter closed.

The debate over the letter reflected the school trustees' division earlier this year when the board majority voted its opposition to the state law because, they said, it violated their Christian beliefs.

The school board has since adopted other language that state officials said was legally satisfactory, but which, trustees said, better reflected their own position.

Trustee James Reed opposed the letter because he said parts of it were inflammatory and inaccurate.

In particular, he took issue with the sentence: "Some even claimed that we were going to lose millions of dollars in funding."

Reed said that statement was a fact, not a claim, because the district stood to lose at least $9 million in state and federal funding.

Marquez emphatically pointed out that there remained a perception the district had lost, or was still at risk of losing, money.

"People in this community have been misled, especially Latinos and Vietnamese [residents]," she said.

"We want the truth to go out to the community."

"I hope," Ahrens said, "we can now focus on writing, reading and arithmetic."

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