By Tina Richards
Constituents of the Orange Unified School District (OUSD) are gathering signatures to force a special election to fill a vacant trustee seat following the board majority’s appointment of an unknown, unqualified candidate whose selection appeared to be prearranged by backroom politicking.
Of eight candidates who applied for the position, Gregory Salas looked to be the least qualified. His competition for the Area 1 seat, left open when Diane Singer resigned, included school employees and retired teachers with 30-years-plus experience in OUSD. It included a college professor, an OUSD volunteer known district-wide, and a retired police chief. Most have lived in the district 20 years or more and have, or had, children in OUSD schools. Several have served on governing boards and understand the legal requirements to which public officials must adhere.
Salas has lived in the area for two years, has no governing experience, and admits he has little knowledge of OUSD issues. When Trustees Tim Surridge, Mark Wayland, Rick Ledesma and John Ortega selected him over the field of more qualified, experienced candidates during a Sept. 21 board meeting, the audience erupted with shrieks of disbelief, disappointment and anger.
Voters have last word
By law, citizens may request a special election to fill a mid-term school board vacancy if they disapprove of the interim seat holder the trustees appoint. Petitioners must collect 1,600 valid voter signatures within 30 days. If successful, the OC superintendent of schools will require the district to hold and pay for the election. The OUSD board had originally opted to appoint an Area 1 trustee rather than hold an election in order to save just under $500 thousand.
Because citizens familiar with the school board feared the majority members would select a self-serving appointee, petitions calling for a special election had already been prepared. Those petitions were brought out immediately following the board vote, and signed by most of the attendees on the spot.
Having petitions ready before the board even voted was not a long shot. The entire selection process had been suspect, with the board majority attempting to keep the public out of it. During a Sept. 15 public hearing, when the board identified a “process” for the appointment, Trustee Kathy Moffatt repeatedly asked her colleagues to keep it transparent. “We are essentially voting on behalf of the people of the district,” she said. “We have a responsibility to be open, to keep the process public.”
Behind the screens
Her motions to interview the candidates, let them present their qualifications and respond to questions at a public hearing were not seconded. Instead, Surridge’s motion to “paper screen” the candidates passed, 5-1. The vote meant that trustees would make a judgment call on information presented on the candidate’s application forms, whittle the field down to four or five, and invite only the finalists to the next board meeting. Moffatt objected, noting that the applications had not been made public, and therefore the proposed process was too secretive. “We need our views and opinions on the public record,” she said. “It sounds like the decision has been made already.”
Under the approved selection process, board members agreed to provide their individual lists of ”paper screened” top candidates to Superintendent Michael Christensen’s office by Thursday, Sept. 17. The superintendent would compile the results and notify the “winners” on Friday. The final selection meeting was scheduled for Monday, Sept. 21, during which time each finalist would have three minutes to convince board members that he or she was best suited for the seat.
On Friday, the agenda for the Monday meeting was made public, as were the finalists. Superintendent Christensen advised that since an appointee would need four votes to earn the seat, only candidates who received four votes from the paper screening process made the cut. The finalists were Chris Nguyen, Greg Salas and Andrea Yamasaki. Nguyen was not a surprise. An Orange County political aide with ties to several board members, he was the candidate thought to be the majority’s favorite. It was assumed that he would jump on the majority bandwagon and become the cherished fifth vote needed to sell surplus (Peralta) property. Nguyen was the main reason petitions calling for a district election had been created in advance.
Andrea Yamasaki was also an expected finalist. Long active in OUSD, she had worked with bond supporters for Measure K, was PTSA president at two schools, and was well known throughout the district for her enthusiasm and drive to improve facilities.
Greg Salas’ appearance among the final three was a mystery. A newcomer to the district with no history or background in OUSD issues, he was considered to be a “strawman” included by board members who wanted Nguyen.
By the Monday night meeting, however, the agenda had changed. Apparently so many people had asked the district office which trustee picked which candidate and how the non-finalists ranked, that OUSD legal counsel advised the board to re-do the paper screening process in public.
But no one knew about the change in agenda until the meeting began – not even all of the trustees. In addition, all eight candidates were invited to the meeting after all. Since few members of the public had seen the revised agenda, no one expected anyone other than Nguyen, Salas and Yamasaki to be there.
The people’s choice
Andrea Yamasaki’s supporters were there in force. A garrison of teachers, parents, bond supporters and other OUSD volunteers spoke publicly, reiterating her qualifications, passion and dedication to the district. Board members were repeatedly urged to select her. Since the public believed that the other five candidates had already been rejected, no one who might have supported them was there. Several applicants commented that they had been invited to the meeting at the last minute with little time to prepare. Yamasaki looked to all like a shoo-in.
With nothing left to do but vote, Moffatt asked the board to allow the other candidates to speak. That was not part of the revised agenda, but she noted that the agenda had already been changed once and “they’re all here. We should let them speak for themselves.” Her motion to do that passed 4 – 2, with Ortega and Surridge voting “no.”
The field of eight applicants each took their three minutes, but it was too little, too late for the slate of viable “rejects.” In the end, the board did not “paper screen” the candidates in public as the revised agenda indicated. Greg Salas got the needed four votes. Alexia Deligianni-Brydges voted for Chris Nguyen; Moffatt, for Andrea Yamasaki.
Torches and pitchforks
The audience was outraged. Livid meeting-goers claimed that the vote had to be fixed, that there was no way four trustees could have independently believed Salas to be the best choice. It strengthened the suspicions of many constituents that his selection as a finalist had been orchestrated behind the scenes. “He was the weakest candidate,” said one shell-shocked meeting attendee. “I can believe one trustee voting for him, but not four.”
Diane Singer, who resigned from the seat now in contention when she moved out of Trustee Area 1, “knows all too well how this board operates.” That’s why she did the legwork in preparing the petition. “That trustee seat is important to me,” she says. “I am still fully engaged with how our district moves forward.”
Signature gathering is being conducted by Anaheim Hills residents (Area 1), teachers, bond supporters and members of the Save Peralta group. Andrea Yamasaki has agreed to run if the special election is called.
Registered voters gathered at the Coffee Grove in Villa Park to sign a petition calling for a special election to fill a vacancy on the OUSD School Board. Standing: Shawn Bittner, Kathleen Enge; seated: Thomas and Sandra Thrasher.
OUSD stakeholders aim to force special election to void irreconcilable board appointment