Guest Commentary

By Diane Singer

“And don’t be afraid to see what you see.” Ronald Reagan

I saw it.  Concerned parents and teachers attending Orange Unified School District’s (OUSD) Sept. 21 meeting saw it by the score.

Now we must not be afraid to admit it!

We must admit that the provisional appointment process to fill the Trustee Area 1 vacancy on the OUSD’s governing board was so mismanaged and so unfair that it must be overturned. 

The appointment process was bungled from the start.  Application deadlines were misstated on the official OUSD website.  Some board members actively discouraged qualified candidates from seeking this seat.  The so-called “paper vetting” process used to eliminate five applicants before they had a chance to speak at the meeting probably violated the State Education Code.  And board members failed to explain why only three candidates were deemed “eligible.”

These back room efforts to manipulate the appointment to the Trustee Area 1 seat I once held proudly resulted in embarrassing confusion for all concerned.  It left at least one experienced board member perplexed – not to mention the legion of enraged constituents who witnessed this boondoggle.

That’s why I urge you to join me in becoming one of at least 1,600 registered voter signatories to the Petition For Special Election To Fill A Vacancy On The Governing Board Of The Orange Unified School District.

Perhaps, even more importantly, you need to sign the petition before the Oct. 21 deadline. The person selected by this Tim Surridge-manipulated board is not prepared to lead – he’s only prepared to follow Surridge’s lead.  And we cannot afford to let an inexperienced, want-to-be politician use our school board to promote Surridge’s self-serving, extreme political agenda.

Appointee Gregory Salas of Anaheim Hills has only lived in OUSD for two years.  A medical sales rep, Salas admits he has “no experience with a governing board.”  And though board members approve the budget, school curriculum and oversee the superintendent, Salas believes that “the board has no administrative responsibility handling school concerns.”

It’s not like there wasn’t a more experienced, qualified candidate for board members to select.  Her name is Andrea Yamasaki,  homemaker and school volunteer. Twenty-nine OUSD parents spoke in favor of Yamasaki’s appointment – none for Salas.  That’s because Yamasaki has children attending OUSD schools.  Her motives for filling the Trustee Area 1 seat are based on her desire to help her kids – our kids – get the best education possible.

To this end, Yamasaki has held leadership positions in district PTAs and Community Advancement through Renovation for Education (CARE), logging more than 1,000 hours of volunteer time each year.  Stated Yamasaki: “The district needs to be open and transparent, and most importantly, have more proactive communications to stakeholders including parents, students, staff and community members.”

Unfortunately, once again, this Surridge-controlled board chose politics over substance, cronyism over qualifications, and secrecy over transparency.  Board members John Ortega, Mark Wayland and Rick Ledesma even waited for Surridge to first cast his vote for Salas.  Then, like the loyal sycophants they are, each followed Surridge by casting their voice votes for Salas in front of a stunned crowd.

We can’t let them get away with it.  That’s why forcing a special election to fill the Trustee Area 1 seat is so important to us – and our kids!

President John F. Kennedy once said that political action is the highest responsibility of a citizen.  The time is now for responsible citizens to take political action and sign the Petition for Special Election.

Will short-sighted school board let Walnut sale crack?
The Orange Unified School District’s (OUSD) Sept. 10 decision to let the Walnut surplus property sale fall out of escrow is a ringing wake-up call to concerned parents and teachers.

It is yet another example of the OUSD board’s failed leadership.  And we owe it to our children to do something about it.  We must get the board to take all necessary action to get the Walnut sale back in escrow.  Now!

Located adjacent to Santiago Charter Middle School, the 10-acre Walnut site was identified as surplus property. After a proper bidding process, it was sold last year for $20 million to Shopoff Realty Investments (SRI) – the highest bidder. 

The process for selling surplus property includes a due diligence period to allow the buyer to finalize a development plan that makes sense for all effected parties.   Sometimes, unforeseen issues arise during a due diligence period that can kill a deal -- zoning laws, environmental concerns, community interests and public safety easements, to name a few.

We could work it out
Issues like these can have a negative impact on land values. In Walnut’s case, SRI learned that community leaders would not support the necessary zone change needed to accommodate its original development plans. So SRI submitted a new development plan, and asked OUSD to renegotiate the deal, as is legal and customary. OUSD refused SRI’s request for reasons yet to be announced. For the public to not know why OUSD rejected the new deal should deeply concern us.  

What we do know is that SRI’s new plan mitigated zoning concerns and won support from community leaders, including Orange city staff members, Orange Home Grown, OC Parks, effected businesses, Burl and Michelle Gregory (who lease a small portion of the parcel for a palm farm) and community leaders.

The new deal also included nearly $1 million in proposed developer-funded improvements to Santiago Charter Middle School to increase parking and allow for planned student expansion.

But the original $20 million bid would have to be reduced to make the new plan financially viable. To be clear, the reduced bid was still significantly more than the $15 million bid submitted by the second highest bidder last year.

Shortsighted, and here’s why:
Putting the Walnut site out to bid again would likely result in bids significantly lower than the SRI offer in hand – given that the developer community now knows the land cannot be re-zoned to accommodate a high-density project.

The Walnut bid process was completed in 2014.  A new law that took effect this year requires that any new surplus public property development include a 15 percent  affordable housing component.  So for every 20 units, three of them must be “affordable.”  This law will drive down Walnut’s land value even more.

For OUSD to reject $1 million in developer-paid improvements to Santiago Charter Middle School -- over and above SRI’s new offer – is a travesty.  As a result, it is likely that the Santiago Charter Board will have to borrow private sector money to finance its desired improvements – and put OUSD taxpayers on the hook to pay back this money.

OUSD staff and attorneys logged hundreds of hours in working the Walnut sale – more precious dollars will be wasted if this deal is allowed to fall through.

After turning down millions of dollars in this latest fiasco – money that could help fund deperately needed facility repairs in the near future – OUSD instead is going to ask voters to approve yet another bond measure in 2016?  Good luck with that.

Bond opponents, and there are many in this conservative district, will seize on the board’s perpetual bungling and malfeasance exhibited in surplus land sales, and use it to defeat any future bond proposal.

So it’s time for the OUSD Board to save it from itself.  It should reconsider SRI’s new proposal for the Walnut surplus property.  And get this deal done.

Diane Singer served on the OUSD Board from 2010 through 2015.  She has no connection with SRI.