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O.C. Schools' Loan Is Lost Over Issue of Sex Identity

March 24, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

A decision by three Orange County school trustees based on their Christian beliefs about sexual identity now has a $16-million price tag.

Westminster School District officials announced Tuesday that Bank of America had refused to extend a loan in that amount because of the district's refusal to adopt a state-mandated anti-discrimination law. The stance by the board's three-member majority could also trigger a loss of up to $40 million in state and federal funds -- a scenario that would throw the small district into financial upheaval.

"This is no longer 'What if.' This is $16 million we no longer have," said board President James Reed, whose district serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. "When we lose this type of money ... the students' education is greatly impacted."

Last month, three of the five trustees voted not to revise the district's anti-discrimination policy to adhere to a California law that requires all public school districts to protect certain groups from discrimination, including transsexuals and others who do not embrace traditional gender roles.

The law requires school anti-discrimination complaint procedures to reflect the state's definition of "sex" as male or female, and "gender" as a person's actual or perceived sex, broadening grounds under which students and teachers can allege discrimination.

The Westminster district's anti-discrimination policy defines gender in traditional biological terms.

Citing their Christian beliefs, Trustees Judy Ahrens, Blossie Marquez-Woodcock and Helena Rutkowski said the state law was offensive and immorally allowed teachers and students to define their sexual identity.

After finding the district out of compliance with the law, state education officials last month advised the board to reconsider its position, but the three trustees refused.

If Westminster does not reverse itself by an April 12 deadline, it could be vulnerable to lawsuits from anyone challenging the policy. California law also entitles the state to withhold some or all of a district's state and federal funding if it refuses to comply with state mandates.

The trustees' decision has angered and frustrated the other two board members, the district's superintendent, teachers and scores of parents who accuse the trustees of placing their personal beliefs above their obligation to uphold California law.

District Assistant Supt. Jon Archibald said bank officials made it clear to him that the potential loss of state funding was too great a risk for the bank.

"They felt the exposure the district had ... was too much at this point. Until this is cleared up, they said, they would not go any further" with the loan, Archibald said.

Reed, the school board president, said he hoped the reality of the loan loss would persuade at least one of the three trustees to change her position when the board meets April 1. He and Trustee Jo-Ann Purcell voted to adopt the state's standard.

The three trustees did not return repeated calls for comment.

The loan was earmarked for a $22-million facility improvement project. In a letter sent to trustees Tuesday, Supt. Barbara DeHart said expansion projects at three schools would be stalled without the $16-million loan, and other work also could be affected. And if the district has to cancel contracts with construction firms, DeHart said, it will lose an additional $2.2 million in state matching funds.

Louise MacIntyre, president of Westminster's parent-teacher association, said parents had begun a movement to recall Ahrens and Marquez-Woodcock. Rutkowski, whose term expires this year, was not being targeted.

"I am appalled that these three board members have put our children at such a financial risk," MacIntyre said.

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