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School trustees seek to muzzle a quirky colleague

Orange Unified board wants to cut his speaking time at meetings. He says it's part of a conspiracy.

March 23, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Fed up with eccentric Orange schools Trustee Steve Rocco, his fellow school board members will try to curtail his ability to place discussion items on the meeting agenda next week.

District staff will present a proposal at the Thursday board meeting that calls for the board president to decide whether a trustee's discussion item ought to be placed on the agenda. If the president denies the item, the trustee can appeal the decision to the full board.

The move comes at a time when parents have begun publicly discussing a recall effort aimed at Rocco, the conspiracy-minded school board member who was elected in what was considered a fluke more than two years ago.

The board proposal and recall threat were prompted by Rocco's attempt this month to make a presentation at a school board meeting about what he calls "the Partnership," a shadowy cabal of politicians, business leaders, judges and other powerful individuals he says run Orange County and have tried to assassinate him. As parents at the meeting fumed, board members cut off Rocco, saying his talk wasn't related to school business.

"How dare you play your childish games at the expense of my children and the taxpayers of this city?" Michelle Thomas, a mother of two elementary students, said at the meeting.

In an interview this week, Rocco dismissed the recall threat, saying it was being made by associates of his fellow board members, who are themselves a part of "the Partnership."

"They get their cronies to come in and talk about recall," he said. "I could care less."

Rocco was elected to the Orange Unified School District board in 2004 with nary a campaign appearance or flier. His quirky style and conspiracy theories -- he contends, for instance, that local authorities were behind his father's death -- called into question voters' attention to school board races. Many in the district suspect that voters chose Rocco because he listed his occupation as a teacher, although he has not taught in years and currently is a caregiver to his elderly mother.

The district, with a $248-million annual budget and more than 31,300 students, is among Orange County's largest.

Since his election, Rocco has abstained from scores of votes because he believes administrators have failed to provide enough information, refuses to vote to expel students or fire teachers because he believes administrative hearings are biased against them, and refuses to participate in closed school board meetings to discuss issues such as personnel matters. Rocco says all school business should be done in public.

Rocco's behavior has led to conflicts at board meetings, including an October decision by his fellow trustees to censure him for disparaging a principal in public session. Rocco, who wears a knit cap and sunglasses to meetings, sued the district over the censure. A judge dismissed the suit, and Rocco has vowed to appeal. The matter has cost the district more than $40,000 in legal fees.

The sole board member Rocco occasionally agrees with is fiscal conservative Rick Ledesma, who co-sponsored two discussion items with Rocco on the March 9 meeting agenda. Ledesma was absent from the meeting and did not return calls seeking comment.

At the meeting, Rocco presented the first item -- a "minority board evaluation" that included lines such as "This district loves pedophiles" -- without interruption. But he wasn't allowed to finish his rambling talk on "the Partnership."

"He's been terribly distracting the last year and a half and requiring far too much time, energy, effort and resources on issues that have nothing to do with Orange Unified and don't benefit the education of our kids," said board President Kimberlee Nichols. "I absolutely think he's wasting our time."

Parents agree.

"He's just wasting the parents' time, the district time, and he's taking away from our kids' future," said Hoda Hamood, a mother of two high school students in the district who plans to meet with other parents to discuss launching a recall against Rocco and possibly Ledesma. "All he cares about is being up there in the spotlight. It's just getting to be a little ridiculous."

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said government bodies often employ such tactics to silence members who are part of a minority bloc or who are disruptive. But regardless of the content of Rocco's speech, Stern said, such policies are inappropriate.

"The board member has been elected, and the majority shouldn't be tyrannizing the minority," he said.

Rocco said his fellow trustees were bent on preventing the public from learning about "the Partnership" and would use any methods necessary. He added that it was the latest in a line of board efforts to silence him.

"I try to tell the truth and try to get it out. They find ways of stopping you," he said. "Everybody has more rights than I do. [But] I'm still here, and I've got two more years."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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