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Top Westminster School Official Resigns

Acting Supt. Lopez was forced out over district's latest controversy, a board member says.

June 13, 2006|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Westminster School District's acting superintendent has quit, adding to a series of high-level resignations and controversies plaguing the district.

Mel Lopez declined to comment on why he resigned Friday.

"I would rather go quietly into the night," said Lopez.

"I just came to realize this is not a place that I can be effective. That's all."

Lopez's resignation after less than two months on the job comes after the district's school board outraged some community members over its decision last month to rescind a job offer to KimOanh Nguyen-Lam, 46, who would have been the first Vietnamese American superintendent in the United States.

The board voted to hire Nguyen-Lam on May 23, then reversed the decision a week later.

This is the latest in a series of controversies at the district, which serves about 10,000 students in Westminster and parts of Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Midway City.

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 that allowed school employees and students to define their own genders.

The board approved compromise language after four months and avoided losing funding.

Teachers in the district have been working without a union contract since September and have picketed board meetings.

The district and the teachers union have been unable to agree on a pay increase, so the state will mediate contract discussions.

Lopez, whose last day will be Friday, is the fifth high-level administrator in the district to resign in a year.

The most recent superintendent, Sheri Loewenstein, announced her resignation after only 16 months.

To replace Loewenstein, the board hired International Group Inc. to find candidates.

Some school board members have reportedly been unhappy with Lopez's connection with the firm, according to board member Sergio Contreras and published reports.

Lopez said that from September 2005 to March 2006, he was a consultant for International Group, working with troubled schools in Lynwood for four days a month, earning $500 per day and mileage.

The firm told him about the opening in Westminster for an acting superintendent as it searched for a full-time superintendent.

He applied and was hired April 20, Lopez said.

Lopez has been the superintendent of school districts in Anaheim and Pacifica for a total of 16 years and has taught at Chapman University.

Lopez said he had no role in the search for a superintendent or the recommendation to hire Nguyen-Lam.

Contreras, a Nguyen-Lam supporter, said Lopez was pressured to resign by his board colleagues, who were looking for a "fall guy" in the controversy over the superintendent's position.

He did not explain how they could blame Lopez for the incident.

Many Westminster residents were outraged by the school board, which offered Nguyen-Lam the position on a 4-1 vote, then rescinded the offer 3 to 2.

"There's all kinds of finger-pointing going on now," Contreras said.

"Unfortunately, he's being used as a fall guy.

"He has absolutely nothing to do with the [hiring] process whatsoever. He was professional. Everything he did, he did it right."

School board member Jo-Ann Purcell declined to comment, and attempts to reach the three other board members were unsuccessful.

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