Trustee Won't Retract "Communist" Remark

Schools: Westminster Board President does acknowledge poor choice of words in criticism of state's bilingual education staff.

WESTMINSTER—Alternately contrite and defiant, the president of Westminster’s school board declined Thursday to apologize for saying the Red Menace is alive and well in Sacramento.

Last month, Michael J. Verrengia asserted in public that the state’s bilingual education staff was under the sway of “communists.”

Verrengia was a trustee in 1996 when the Westminster School District won a precedent-setting waiver from the state’s bilingual education rules.

At the school board meeting Thursday night, critics demanded that Verrengia formally retract statements he made at a board meeting in April.

“Yes, I did have a poor choice of words,” Verrengia responded. “But I am going to stop short of an apology.”

Verrengia and two allies on the board also voted down a motion to require him to write an apology.

“I’ll admit I probably used a little bit of strong language, probably not suited to a school board meeting,” Verrengia said earlier Thursday.

A transcript of that April 17 meeting quotes Verrengia attacking a state senator’s proposal to reshape bilingual education.

“What they are going to be doing is they’re going to be throwing control back to the state Department of Education, period. And Norm Gold and his merry bunch of communists up in Sacramento will now have complete control over this,” Verrengia said at the time, referring to the state’s bilingual compliance manager.

Gold could not be reached Thursday. A Department of Education spokeswoman had no comment.

Margie L. Rice, a Westminster councilwoman and former school trustee, criticized Verrengia.

“Calling people communist, is, to me, you’re putting them down,” she said. “You’re making them sound as if they’re not American or not democratic. It’s pretty bad.”

The flap over Verrengia’s remarks arose as the school board came under fire this month for buying out the last two years of Gail Wickstrom’s contract as superintendent.

Verrengia and two other conservative trustees cited political and philosophical differences with Wickstrom in defense of the $ 163,000 buyout, though they acknowledged her administrative skill.

Wickstrom, 55, confirmed Thursday that she has reached a tentative deal to become superintendent of the 7,400-student Saugus Union School District in northwestern Los Angeles County.

Wickstrom said she has no hard feelings. Her departure becomes official at the end of May, after six years at the helm of the 9,000-student district.

“I believe the Westminster community has some issues that they need to work out amongst themselves, and I have faith that they will,” Wickstrom said.

Wickstrom’s exit is still making waves. Parents and others critical of the board majority have met in recent months to vent complaints. There has been talk of a recall movement, though the dissidents insist that nothing has been decided.

“Recall is definitely a possibility,” said Jan Doyle, a parent whose daughter attends Fay Fryberger Elementary School. “But it’s something that has to be checked out. It’s a horrible feeling that we are pretty much helpless as parents.”

But Westminster teacher Dixie Jordan said that if voters “had all the facts, I’m sure they would very much support what the board is doing.”

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