Orange Still Sour

EDUCATION: Bitterness runs high the day after back-to-basics candidates sweep school-board election.

It wasn’t pretty.

The widely monitored race for four seats on the Orange Unified School District board ended late Tuesday with a stunning sweep by back-to-basics candidates who overcame a hard-nosed, big-bucks campaign against them by teacher unions.

Now, both sides agree, the question is: Can the district reunite to get on with the business of educating children?

Supporters of the board’s ruling bloc entered Tuesday’s elections hoping merely to retain their two seats on the ballot.

They began Wednesday with an adrenaline rush from not only preserving the voting majority but adding to it.

Yet amid the celebratory cigar smoke that wafted poolside at winning candidate Linda Davis’ home on election night was the unmistakable scent of acrimony.

“The union hasn’t heard the last of this,” said Bill Lewis, a school-board member whose seat was not on the ballot Tuesday.

Despite their resounding win, Lewis and many others said they were upset by the unions’ campaign that sharply criticized the records and actions of incumbent candidate Martin Jacobson and the rest of the school board. While such strategies are commonplace in politics, the tenor of this debate seemed unusually strident for a school-board race.

The amount of money spent proved unusual as well. The teachers unions, for example, spent at least $ 60,000 on behalf of four endorsed candidates.

The raw emotions prevalent Tuesday and Wednesday accentuated the strained relations between the board and the Orange Unified Education Association. It also highlighted the gut-level nature of many policies the board has pursued, such as dismantling the bilingual-education program and barring psychological counselors from district campuses.

But for Lewis and others to criticize the teacher-supported campaign is “like the pot calling the kettle black,” said Gary Franklin, executive director of the Orange Unified Education Association. “We’re upset, too, about things that were said.

The last week of the campaign, they always come out with scare tactics about how the big union bosses and gays and lesbians are trying to steal the election. “

Mainly, however, Franklin said teachers were disappointed with the election’s results.

“We’re just hopeful that the board will look at things from an educational standpoint,” he said. “If they do, we’ll be happy to work with them. But when they don’t, we’ll still respectfully point those things out. “

School-board seats normally are low-profile posts, but the power they wield can make them political battlefields at election time.

That is particularly true in Orange, where board activists have tried to focus schools more on academics and less on social services. So it surprised few people when the election campaign drew heavyweight, well-financed candidates.

But the tone of the campaign did surprise some veteran observers.

“Some of the things said on all sides touched a new low,” said Bob Viviano, a board member not up for re-election Tuesday. “There has been a lot of rancor. There were a lot of good people who took
a lot of slams that were unwarranted. We must have some healing
in order for the district to regain its credibility. “

Complicating the task ahead for the board is the problem of interpreting Tuesday’s elections. Viviano and others were quick to point out that while all four seats were won by candidates sympathetic to the board majority, the votes in most races were so close that the word “mandate” should be used with caution.

Every race but one was a squeaker. Jacobson, the outspoken board president, defeated Gisela Meier by a scant 251 votes out of 17,605 cast. Linda Davis unseated incumbent James Fearns by 247 votes out of 17,683 tabulated. Another incumbent, Rick Ledesma, lost by 478 votes. Only Terri Sargeant won with any degree of comfort, beating Bill Vasquez by 1,194 votes.

“People are clearly divided about the way their school district should be run,” said Viviano, who after Dec. 11 will be the lone remaining member of the minority bloc.

New board members seemed to recognize that possibility, and they offered conciliatory remarks.

“I think you may see a kinder, gentler board in some respects,” Sargeant said, noting that, for what it’s worth, women will now command a 4-3 majority on the board. “And I want to say that teachers are not the enemy to me. I admire what they do and they should not consider themselves a target. “

Even Lewis, while spitting nails at the unions, said he made a distinction between teachers and the union leadership. “People shouldn’t worry,” he said. “There will be no pounds of flesh. “

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