School Official's Remarks Draw Stern Rebuke

Education: State Superintendent protests reference to bilingual staff as "merry bunch of Communists."

State schools chief Delaine Eastin has given a sharp rap on the knuckles to the Westminster School District board president for name-calling on the playground of politics.

And what was Michael J. Verrengia’s offense? He referred to the state’s bilingual education staff as a “merry bunch of communists” in an April school board meeting.

Eastin, mum at first, has since sent Verrengia a tartly worded letter threatening to sue if he repeats what she considers a slanderous remark.

“The term ‘communist’ is not only irrelevant to issues involving children’s education, it is highly unprofessional in any context,” Eastin wrote in a letter dated June 20. Verrengia, who has declined to apologize while conceding that he made a poor choice of words, said Tuesday he would not comment on the letter.

Elected to the school board in 1994, Verrengia has been a frequent critic of California’s bilingual education system. In 1996, the 9,000-student Westminster district won a precedent-setting waiver of state requirements, allowing it to stress teaching English to children who are not fluent. That waiver is up for state review next fall.

Verrengia’s comments came in an April 17 discussion of a proposal to reform bilingual education law. A transcript quotes him as calling the state staff a “merry bunch of communists” and a “merry band of Commies.”

Verrengia and two conservative board allies have drawn fire recently for buying out the contract of a respected superintendent for $ 163,000. There is talk of a recall attempt. Critics of the board president seized on Eastin’s letter as ammunition for their cause.

“It proves that Mr. Verrengia is incapable of leading this district, especially as board president,” said Jeanne Salinas, a former school board candidate involved in the nascent recall movement.

An Eastin spokesman, Doug Stone, said he did not know why the state superintendent of public instruction waited so long to reply to Verrengia. Stone said such letters were not a “common occurrence.”

And he added: “I’m not a communist.”

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