When KimOanh Nguyen-Lam was hired last month as superintendent of the Westminster School District, proud Vietnamese Americans filled her voice mail with congratulations.
Her appointment made headlines in Vietnamese-language newspapers and on television and radio. She was making history as the nation's first Vietnamese American school superintendent.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Westminster schools superintendent: An article in Wednesday's California section used outdated statistics to describe the ethnic makeup of Westminster School District teachers as 3% Asian American and 3% Latino. Currently, 12% of the teachers are Asian American and 8% are Latino. The article also incorrectly said that a rally would be held today at school district headquarters. The event is a news conference.
It was a short celebration. Last week, seven days after her appointment, the board rescinded its offer, and community pride dissolved into confusion and anger.
Leaders in the Vietnamese American community are asking what happened, and others are gearing up to persuade trustees to change their minds one more time.
"It has been a roller-coaster ride," said Phu Nguyen, a president for the Vietnamese American Community of Southern California. "The thrill of it one day, and a couple of days later we're right at the bottom. Everybody is upset, and there's going to be a strong reaction."
The fractious board voted 4 to 1 to hire Nguyen-Lam, but reversed the decision May 30. No reason was given why board members Judy Ahrens and Jim Reed changed their votes. They have not returned calls from the news media.
Community members who formed a coalition called Keep Our Voice, Keep KimOanh began a letter-writing and call-in campaign. They have scheduled a rally Friday outside school district headquarters.
"We want to know why," said Daniel D. Do-Khanh, an attorney and a member of the coalition.
"If it's not racial, then what is it? I heard the news, and it upset me greatly. It made me go forward to see if this wrong can be righted."
The dust-up is the latest dose of bad public relations for the small school district.
Four of its top five administrators have quit in the last year. Teachers have been working without a union contract since September.
And, two years ago, the district nearly lost $8 million in annual state and federal funding when it balked at adopting a state-mandated antidiscrimination policy letting school employees and students define their own gender; the board approved compromise language to accommodate some members' Christian beliefs.
During its nationwide search for a superintendent, the district paid $15,000 to International Group Inc. to find candidates.
Robert Aguilar, president of the company, said he was shocked at the board's actions. "All of her references were very strong," he said. "She's an excellent candidate. She's very qualified."
The board spent at least eight days reviewing applications from 15 candidates, including Nguyen-Lam. The 46-year-old Fountain Valley resident is a trustee in the Garden Grove Unified School District.
She is also associate director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at Cal State Long Beach. Among those who know her, she has a reputation for promoting language skills and bridging cultures.
"I've had experience working with diverse communities," Nguyen-Lam said. "But different outside influences blew it all up before I had a chance. This is like a slap in the face."
The Westminster district has 10,000 students, most of whom have Latino or Vietnamese backgrounds. Only 3% of the district's teachers are Latino, and another 3% are Asian. Nguyen-Lam speaks fluent English, Vietnamese, Spanish and French.
In Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, support for Nguyen-Lam is strong with few detractors, an unusual feat in a community known for its infighting and factions.
"She understands two cultures," said Helen Doan, 51, of Garden Grove. "She has the great love for students and children. She's dedicated."
Doan, who immigrated to the United States in 1991, said she moved out of Westminster because her children needed better schools. She listens to Nguyen-Lam's weekly Vietnamese-language radio program that offers a mix of education news and tips for Vietnamese immigrants with children in U.S. schools.
"I've learned a lot from her that I would not have known otherwise because I don't speak English," Doan said.
"She really motivates me to get involved in my children's education."
Nguyen-Lam also has the backing of many Latinos.
"It's the first time we are going to have somebody that cares about our community," said parent Silvia Aranda, 36, of Garden Grove. "We just want somebody to help us, to encourage children to study and have higher education. Her [experience] and Spanish speaking is perfect for this position."
Nguyen-Lam said she was unsure if she would take the job if the trustees changed their minds again.
"The publicity around it has been so negative," she said. "I'm not sure I can go in and do a good job. It would have to be a unanimous vote, or else nothing would get done."
She said the district's action had damaged her reputation. "I am in a dilemma. I don't want to pursue a lawsuit because the district is in no position to deal with it. They still have a teachers' contract, and this would hurt them further and take focus away from the children."