John Ortega, Orange Unified Trustee for Area 6
By Tina Richards
Orange Unified School District Trustee John Ortega did not attend the board’s October meeting, but he still loomed large as a routine consent calendar item was pulled because of uncomfortable connections that centered around him.
Consent calendar items are usually approved in one inclusive vote because they tend to be “business as usual” activities that do not require board discussion or analysis. Board members can, however, pull an item from the bloc vote if they believe it warrants further attention.
Trustee Kathy Moffat pulled “the receipt of a charter school application” from the consent roster because of the relationship between the applicant, a political action committee (PAC), and John Ortega’s campaign.
Connect the dots
Moffat noted that the CEO of the proposed charter school, Chris Winn, hosted a fundraiser for Ortega and Trustee Area 6 candidate Brenda Lebsack under the auspices of the OC Charter Advocates for Great Public Schools PAC. “Because of this strong connection between Chris Winn, the charter school people, and these candidates, it is important that we remove even the appearance of improper influence in this matter,” she said.
Ortega’s campaign finance statement confirms that his only funding has come from the OC Charter Advocates and himself. An Oct. 6 fundraiser for Ortega and Lebsack was sponsored by the PAC, and hosted by Winn and Mark Bucher. Bucher is a principal in the nonprofit California Policy Center.
Bucher’s role in Ortega’s reelection is of interest, because he was also a key figure in the now-defunct Educational Alliance, an organization that supported several school board members who were subsequently recalled in 2001. Among a myriad of constituent complaints that included being anti-teacher, and an undue focus on personal and religious agendas, that board also favored privatizing district services. It voted to replace OUSD bus drivers with an outside contractor.
The wrong bus
Moffat, who was not on the board at that time, recalls that on the morning of the first day of school, the district got a call from the new, private transportation contractor. The contractor reportedly told the district “we know kids are standing on the street waiting for buses, but we can’t do this.”
Fortunately, Moffat says, the district hadn’t sold its buses yet. Staff called back the drivers who had just been laid off, and sent them out to pick up the kids.
“That’s the Educational Alliance in action,” Moffat summarizes. “And the California Policy Center is the reincarnation of that same group. It is troubling that they are, through OC Charter Advocates, supporting Ortega and another candidate for the school board.”
The California Policy center, like the Educational Alliance, advocates charter schools and privatization. Brenda Lebsack denies any affiliation with the California Policy Center, but she is accepting money generated through Bucher’s efforts.
Because of the connection between the charter school (Winn), the political action committee (Winn, Bucher), the California Policy Center (Bucher) and two candidates (Ortega, Lebsack), Moffat recommended that the board vote to accept receipt of the application, with provisions. She asked the board to agree to hold the required public hearing on the charter right away and make a decision on it before December, when the newly elected board members take their seats.
A clean slate
She noted that the board had set aside Oct. 27 as an “if needed” meeting date. The public hearing could be held at that time, she suggested, with a vote on the charter school scheduled for the November board meeting, and John Ortega be recused.
“This is an important time in the history of our school district,” she advised. “There has never been a more important time for us to proudly exhibit our high standards and to clearly communicate by our example that our votes are not for sale. We need to demonstrate to our community that our decisions are based only on the merits and will not be improperly influenced.”
Board member Tim Surridge objected. “There’s nothing wrong with a charter school supporting candidates,” he said. “The implication is troubling. We should not engage in this.” He further noted that Moffat had accepted money from the teachers union, and subsequently voted on salary issues.
Shoot the messenger
“That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Moffat countered. “Teachers are an integral part of OUSD, and they gave money to a PAC, not to me. You can look it up, it’s part of the public record.”
Surridge remained firm in his belief that there was nothing improper in the charter school’s application, and that Ortega did not need to recuse himself.
Moffat’s motion to receive the charter school application with a fast-tracked public hearing failed by a four (Surridge, Ledesma, Alexia Deligianni-Brydges, Mark Wayland) to two (Moffat, Andrea Yamasaki) vote. The application was ultimately accepted, 6-0.
John Ortega was out of town, and had intended to participate by phone. He apparently experienced technical difficulties and was unable to call in. This was the seventh meeting he’s missed out of the 13 held so far.