Schools Out Forever

The successful Feb. 4 recall of Santa Ana Unified School District trustee Nativo Lopez was supposed to transform Orange County's largest, poorest school district from a banana republic into an education haven—that's how Lopez's well-funded, largely conservative opponents pitched it to Santa Ana voters in campaigning for his removal.

''I think what we wanted to do is kind of start over, you might say, and have a fresh approach,'' SAUSD trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji told the Orange County Registerin an Feb. 13 story reporting on the Day Nativo Left. ''[The Lopez recall is] symbolic, but also purposeful in leadership. It symbolizes a good fresh start.''

But the “fresh start” produced less than zero. If anything, the SAUSD is more screwed up now than ever before.

•The board considered implementing an all-grades abstinence-only sex-ed program associated with conservative commentator Phyllis Schlafly, a notorious Latino-baiter who insists in nationally published columns that Mexicans are planning to retake the Southwest. Only the recommendation of district staff (warning the sex-ed curriculum didn't comply with state regulations) convinced Yamagata-Noji and fellow trustees John Palacio and Sal Tinajero to reject chastity indoctrination 3-2 at a May 13 board meeting. Conservative members Rob Richardson and Rosemarie Avila nevertheless cast aye votes.

•Bilingual education bylaws were changed so that Santa Ana parents who want their children enrolled in bilingual-education classes must first appeal for special consideration. Never mind the conservatives' local-control rhetoric: What once was a personal process decided by parents and the teachers who know students best is now in the hands of unelected district officials including Superintendent Al Mijares, a bilingual-education opponent.

•Avila also unsuccessfully tried to rescind a grandfather clause that allowed 6,000 kids already enrolled in bilingual programs to continue through the school year before the new bylaws took effect. Avila proposed this despite SAUSD attorneys advising the board in an Aug. 12 board meeting that such a measure would be “extreme” and a “violation of due process,” and that “Most Americans will say, 'It's not fair.'”

•Anti-Lopez forces attacked him for the glacial pace of new-school construction. But plans to build 11 new elementary schools were reduced to just four elementary schools due to mismanagement of construction funds by the board. And when the SAUSD had the opportunity to begin construction on Loren Griset Elementary in February, board members instead sold land acquired for the proposed school after NIMBY neighbors whined.

•Santa Ana Unified is faced with a $25-million deficit for the next three years, which means schools face drastic cuts in teachers, after-school programs, and security guards. The reason? District bureaucrats severely underestimated how many students would enroll in the district in the coming years, thereby planning their budget around funds that California rewards for a district's enrollment rate. For once, teachers welcome overcrowding.

•Worried that his district's 92 percent Latino student body would heed Lopez's call for Latino students to ditch school on Dec. 12 in protest over the repeal of SB 60, Mijares oversaw the raffling of a TV/VCR for students who attended school that Friday. In a Dec. 11 letter to parents, Mijares warned, “I hope that you would not listen to anyone who would ask you to do something that is not in your child's best interest.” Schools reported absentee rates of around 20 percent—apparently, those kids don't dig the boob tube.

The district did only one thing right all year—the Dec. 12 removal of Lathrop Intermediate School principal Gloria Nogales-Talley after she wreaked havoc over Orange County's lowest-performing non-continuation school. SAUSD officials ordered Nogales-Talley to a position inside the district offices, closer to the trustees she emulated so well.

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