Volunteers gathered 3,670 signatures on a petition demanding a special election to seat a suitable Area 1 trustee on the Orange Unified School District Board. OUSD parents and students delivered the petitions to the OC Department of Education, Oct. 19. Seen here: Eileen Hartfelder, Lee Lombardo, Carole Miller, Andrea Yamasaki, Diane Singer, Farah Javadi, and (in front) Blake and Garrett Hartfelder.
By Tina Richards
Orange Unified constituents, unhappy with the board’s selection of an interim trustee, gathered 3,670 signatures on a petition to force a special election; the OC Registrar of Voters certified, Oct. 27, that there were enough valid signatures to call the election.
The petitions needed to be signed by 1.5 percent (1,576) of registered voters within OUSD boundaries. With more than twice that number collected, the goal was well within reach. The Orange County Department of Education will now direct OUSD to hold and pay for a special election, allowing voters to fill a vacant seat on the board of trustees. Interim Trustee Greg Salas will be told to step down.
The demand for a special election was driven by the OUSD board majority’s selection of Salas over a field of more qualified applicants seeking to fill the seat vacated by Diane Singer. Singer, representing Trustee Area 1, had to resign when she moved out of Anaheim Hills (Area 1) into Orange (Area 3).
Trustee not trusted
The board opted to appoint an interim trustee instead of holding an election because the ballot exercise would cost the district just under $500 thousand. Nine Area 1 residents submitted applications for the position; among them, past and present district employees, a college professor, a retired police captain and well-known district volunteer Andrea Yamasaki. Yamasaki was the overwhelming choice of district constituents.
Despite the public’s clear preference for Yamasaki, the board majority – Tim Surridge, Rick Ledesma, Mark Wyland, John Ortega -- voted for Greg Salas. Salas has lived in Anaheim Hills for just two years, has no children in OUSD schools, and admits having little knowledge of district issues. People familiar with the board’s dynamics believed Salas was chosen because he would vote with the majority. Key board decisions are often split, with Surridge, Ledesma, Wyland and Ortega voting one way, and Kathy Moffatt, Alexia Deligianni-Brydges and Diane Singer voting another. Strengthening the majority block would ensure that anything proposed or opposed by Moffat would be overruled.
Salas confirmed that suspicion right away. Up for discussion at the Oct. 15 board meeting was a proposition to divide OUSD into “separate facilities improvement districts” aligned with attendance boundaries for its four high schools. The concept is being considered because the 2014 bond measure that would have funded renovation and modernization of the high schools was defeated overall, but passed by voters in proximity to Orange and El Modena. Had the vote for that measure been separated, proponents of subdividing the district argue, work would be underway at those schools.
Look both ways
But Tim Surridge was not at the meeting that evening. When the facilities district item came up, Ortega motioned that it be continued until Surridge could be there. Moffatt objected, noting that the item was already agendized, the public was there to hear it, and postponing it would waste time.
Mark Wyland agreed, pointing out that board members occasionally miss meetings and that the agenda is followed without them. Greg Salas also agreed. “There are six of us here,” he said. “I think we should hear the item.”
But when asked to vote on a continuance, Salas abandoned his stated concurrence with Moffatt and Wyland, and sided with Ortega and Ledesma. “Did he just do that?” one befuddled meeting-goer asked. Alexia Deligiani-Brydges also voted to table the discussion and, with a 4-2 vote, it was.
Back in the saddle
One week later, during an unexpected special meeting, the board agreed to the preliminary work needed to identify separate facilities improvement districts. In a 6-1 vote, trustees directed OUSD staff to develop maps drawn along high school attendance boundaries. Since attendance areas do not coincide with precincts, attendance area maps are necessary to determine how the vote breaks down if a bond is put on the ballot next November.
Surridge was at that Oct. 22 meeting, but Kathy Moffatt was not. She participated via telephone, emphatically opposing improvement districts. She said fixing some schools, and not others, would create a disparity that could last for decades, and that it would create inequality in education.
Assistant Superintendent Joe Sorrero stressed that the vote that evening was not to approve separate districts, but simply to lay the groundwork. “This is just a call for mapping,” he said. The board can decide later whether or not it wants a bond measure split into facilities districts.
The board has not yet decided to float a bond measure in 2016, but agreed to prepare for a separate-district option, nonetheless. “It gives us options for later,” Ledesma explained. Moffatt was the sole dissenter.
Finding, funding fixes
In a separate discussion, the board addressed the value of spending district funds on facilities assessments. Trustees were given three options: spend $150 thousand to identify the facilities needs of OUSD elementary and middle schools (last done in 2003); spend $300 thousand to update the high schools’ assessment prepared for last year’s bond measure; or use $500 thousand to create a comprehensive, long-term Facilities Master Plan.
Kathy Moffatt attempted, via telephone, to make a case for a long-term master plan for all schools. She noted that board policy requires it have one “at all times,” yet no current plan exists. “Not having a plan is irresponsible,” she said, “We are in violation of the law. We don’t know the specific needs of each school. We need to pass a bond, and we need the community’s faith and trust.” She further suggested that the use of a portion of a one-time $10 million allocation expected from the state would be a “good use for some of that money.” Her motion to approve that option was not seconded.
After a brief debate over the merits of the other options, and the details of each, the board voted 6-1 to do nothing. “I don’t want to spend the money,” Surridge advised.
Nonetheless, the district will be spending close to $500 thousand for a special election.
Petition certified: voters overrule unpopular OUSD appointment