In the often-heated debate over bilingual education, Westminster school board President Mike Verrengia has been called his share of
names: “racist,” “immigrant basher” and so on. But he always figured that strong words are just part of politics.

So Mike is a little surprised that California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin is threatening to sue him for slander.

And what did Mike do to prompt that threat? Well, he sarcastically called the bureaucrats of the Education Department’s bilingual compliance section a “merry bunch of communists. “

The whole thing started at a Westminster School Board meeting in April, during comments on a proposal that Mike believes would make it harder for school districts to get a waiver from state-imposed bilingual-education requirements. The 9,000-student Westminster School District already has such a waiver, which allows its teachers to teach in English only _ a method that Mike strongly supports.

“They’re going to be throwing control (of bilingual education) back to the state Department of Education, period,” Mike said at the meeting. “And Norm Gold (head of the Education Department’s bilingual compliance section) and his merry bunch of communists up in Sacramento will now have complete control over this. “

Now, I could understand the bureaucrats being upset if Mike had called them a gloomy bunch of communists. Or a bunch of paper-pushing, time-lock-watching, public trough-wallowing, bilingual-education-mandating communists.

But what’s wrong with being called “merry,” which means “full of fun and laughter”?

Nevertheless, when word of Mike’s comments reached the education commissars in Moscow _ I mean, the education professionals in Sacramento _ they were not amused.

So after Mike refused to apologize, Superintendent Eastin sent him a letter, on official Education Department stationery, in which she denied that her staffers are communists _ merry or otherwise _ and schoolmarmishly scolded Mike for being “unprofessional. “

Then came the kicker, written in the threatening, legalistic tone ofa dun notice from a collection agency.

“And, finally,” Eastin’s letter said, “your remarks constitute slander per se. (Civ. Code 46 (3); MacLeod v. Tribune Publishing Co. (1959) 52 Cal.2d 536, 542-543, 548-550; Farr v. Bramblett
(1955) 132 Cal. App.2d 32 38-42, 48.) If they are repeated, I shall begin active legal consultation to prepare litigation against you. “

Mike, 47, a Garden Grove police reserve officer who recently was honored for bravery, is mystified by what he calls this “verbal thump on the head. “

“Are people really that thin-skinned? ” Mike wonders.

The answer, obviously, is yes.

Education Department spokesman Doug Stone told me the letter was simply a laudable attempt by Eastin to defend her staff, and added, “It’s unlikely any legal action will be taken” against Mike.

Still, you’d think that the top educator in a state whose fourth-graders recently tied for last place in national reading skills might have better things to do than threaten legal action against a local elected official for making what amounted to a simple wisecrack.

Even a communist would probably see that as a big fat waste of time.

Gordon Dillow may be reached at (714) 953-7953.

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