Conservatives Speaking Louder On Schools

Education: Westminster board's buyout of official's contract illustrates the rising power of the "back-to-basics" philosophy across the county.

The abrupt departure of Westminster’s schools superintendent this week gave blunt proof of the rising political power of the back-to-basics movement in Orange County.

As chief of the 9,000-student district, Gail Wickstrom seemingly had everything going for her. Under her six-year stewardship, Westminster schools obtained a precedent-setting waiver from the state’s bilingual education rules, cut class sizes in three grades and wrote new standards for student achievement while dodging fiscal troubles.

Yet a new 3-2 majority of the Westminster School District board felt it had enough differences with Wickstrom on what it called “political and philosophical issues” to buy out the last two years of her contract for $ 163,000. The outlay comes with the district having delayed school maintenance and such projects as wiring classrooms to the Internet.

On Wednesday, the day after voting with that majority to accept Wickstrom’s resignation, board President Michael J. Verrengia said he was not satisfied with the district’s progress in teaching basic mathematics and reading, especially through the word-sounding method known as phonics.

Verrengia declined to criticize Wickstrom directly. But he said, “I feel that phonics is a basis for teaching reading . . . and I think you should have a basis in fundamental math before you go to the new-style math.”

Another anti-Wickstrom trustee, Helena Rutkowski, whose election last fall tilted the board’s politics to the right, said Vietnamese- and Spanish-speaking children aren’t learning enough English. About 45% of the district’s students are not fluent in English.

Last year, Wickstrom helped launch a program that focuses on intensive instruction in English, after winning a waiver from bilingual education requirements from the State Board of Education. That waiver is due to be reconsidered in the fall, a key test for the next superintendent. Rutkowski contended that bilingual teacher assistants–mandated by the state agreement–are still speaking too much in non-English languages.

“My issue is that all school-age children should be learning in the English language because we are living in America,” Rutkowski said.

Such views aren’t unique to Westminster. Conservative activists have gained majorities in recent years on boards in Garden Grove and Orange and are raising debate on the county Board of Education.

But after Wickstrom’s expensive buyout, some Westminster parents are questioning the price of this new brand of politics. The board majority hired a lawyer for $ 150 an hour to negotiate the deal. A potentially costly search to replace Wickstrom lies ahead.

“We literally work our butts off to raise $ 3,500 so we can have buses for our kids to go on field trips,” said Kitty Hilton, a parent at Fay Fryberger Elementary School who backs Wickstrom. “And they do this.”

Trustees and school district observers said Wednesday that there were other issues behind Wickstrom’s departure, including an old conflict with the teachers union that arose in years past when the superintendent sought to ensure that teachers received bilingual training. Details remained elusive Wednesday because the board’s decision was made in closed session and trustees were reluctant to elaborate.

A letter from the five school trustees on Tuesday praised Wickstrom’s service and described her departure as a “mutual” agreement. “Boards of trustees and superintendents don’t always see eye to eye on political and philosophical issues,” the letter said.

But trustee Lynn Covey, a Wickstrom supporter, said the superintendent was forced out.

“It is a political stance,” Covey said. “I’m appalled by it. I’m embarrassed by it. We’ve taken a five-year backward step.”

Wickstrom, 55, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She will resign from the $ 102,963-a-year post after taking paid leave through May. The buyout constitutes less than the full amount of her contract.

Barbara Winars, 56, a Westminster teacher and administrator for 34 years, was named acting superintendent of the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade district until the board’s May 15 meeting.

Wickstrom’s successor will face major challenges. The district’s $ 43-million yearly budget has been strained by the state’s initiative to shrink primary-grade classes to 20 students per teacher. Winars said the district is paying more than $ 900 per student to cut class sizes in the first through third grades, though the state pays only $ 650 apiece.

Winars said she wants to ensure that school operations “go forward in a smooth manner, and that we continue to provide the best possible education for the students, and not let this process disrupt that.”

Times correspondent Jennifer Leuer contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.