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Rare Backing for an Official Defying Law

In refusing to adopt a state gender definition, a Westminster school trustee found a majority.

March 29, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

After she was finally elected to the board of a small Orange County school district, Judy Ahrens fought most of her battles alone, and with little effect.

No one joined her, for instance, when she opposed funding for the Westminster School District's preschools or questioned the use of district money for private lessons for severely disabled students. Her stand against state funding for technology in classrooms was a solo effort, and she failed to convince others that the district's drug abuse awareness program was a waste of money.

So when Ahrens voted to defy a state anti-discrimination law at a school board meeting last month -- as she had promised during her campaign two years earlier -- she was stunned that two other trustees agreed with her. So surprised, in fact, that Ahrens removed her glasses to wipe tears from her eyes after the vote by what constituted a majority on the five-member board.

In that defining moment, Ahrens, Blossie Marquez-Woodcock and Helena Rutkowski thrust Westminster into an unfamiliar spotlight. It is the only school district in California to refuse to revise its discrimination complaint policy to comply with state gender law. The law allows students and school staff to define their own gender, regardless of their biological sex, to prevent discrimination against transsexuals and others who do not conform to traditional gender roles.

Invoking their religious beliefs, the three trustees -- one a Catholic, one Lutheran and the third a nondenominational Christian chaplain -- said they were offended by the law and have refused to waver on what, they argue, is a key moral stance.

"According to the people who are angry at us, there is a price on morality," Ahrens, 58, said. "I say: 'Our kids are not for sale.' What price do you put on morality?"

The trustees' position, if not reversed, would expose the district to lawsuits and could ultimately jeopardize as much as $40 million in state and federal funding. Bank of America announced last week that it was halting a $16-million loan to the district until it could evaluate the effect the board's stance could have on the district's financial security.

Until now, the three trustees have led relatively quiet political and personal lives.

Each has enrolled children in district schools, which serve 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Ahrens, however, removed her son after the sixth grade, saying she was dissatisfied with the level of instruction. She sent him to a parochial high school to avoid "all the social engineering that happens in public schools, like sex education."

Polish-born Rutkowski, 66, came to the United States as a child and describes herself as a devout Catholic. An architect's widow who worked part time as a teacher's assistant, she is completing her eighth year on the school board.

Marquez-Woodcock, 51, a chaplain who ministers to the terminally ill, was appointed to the board in 2000 to fill a vacancy, and was elected in 2002. She declined to be interviewed.

Ahrens, the widow of an aerospace engineer, previously ran a small after-school tutoring program. She described herself as a devout Lutheran. Ahrens joined the board in 2002, placing third in a five-candidate race for three seats, after having lost in two previous board elections.

Ahrens and Rutkowski accepted campaign donations from the Family Action Political Action Committee, a conservative family-issues-based advocacy group.

The trio's unbending stance on the anti-discrimination law has frustrated other district officials and infuriated many, who accuse them of placing their personal beliefs ahead of their duty to uphold state law.

The Westminster Teachers Assn. has denounced their decision and plans to demonstrate outside the board's meeting Thursday, according to union President Janet Brubaker. A group of parents has announced a recall effort.

Perhaps the harshest critic has been school board President James Reed: "If you are an advocate of public education, what possible justification could you have for saying this [funding] is not important? They are being bigoted against these protected classes because they don't like them."

Reed expressed surprise that Marquez-Woodcock and Rutkowski had aligned themselves with Ahrens. Reed depicted Ahrens as an unqualified trustee who has repeatedly violated district policies by arriving unannounced for campus inspections and making public statements on behalf of the district.

"My view is that she is doing everything she can to be disruptive and detrimental to the district," Reed said. "I do not think she should be a board member."

Ahrens dismisses her critics and accuses the district of using the possible funding loss as part of "a campaign of scare tactics" to deceive district parents.

After consistently finding herself at odds with the rest of the board, Ahrens said, she felt validated by prevailing on the gender vote. Long opposed to the state gender law, Ahrens campaigned against it as "anti-family."

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