South County School Elections Key on ‘Traditional Values’
The teaching of “traditional values” and allegations that for some candidates those translate into fundamental Christianity in the classroom have been the dominant themes in south Orange County’s two school board campaigns.
In the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, board vice president Dore J. Gilbert and president Kristine A. Kister are facing six opponents, including two candidates who have made “traditional values"--buzzwords of fundamentalist religious groups--one of the slogans of their campaigns.
In the Capistrano Unified School District, where board members are elected in geographical areas, incumbents Jan Overton, Annette B. Gude and Paul B. Haseman each face a traditional-values candidate, with Overton opposing two other candidates as well.
The incumbents in both districts have accused opponents of accepting support from, and in some cases being controlled by, two fundamentalist Christian groups outside the area: the Anaheim-based California Coalition for Traditional Values, which is headed by the Rev. Lou Sheldon, and the Costa Mesa-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, whose president is Dr. Robert Simonds.
While those two groups have endorsed five candidates in the two districts, they have not directly contributed large amounts of money to their campaigns. And the candidates, while accepting the endorsements, dispute the claims that they are under the groups’ control.
Both districts have been embroiled in controversy in the past year because of their decisions to bar religious clubs from meeting on campus during school hours.
An “equal access” law requires schools that receive federal funds to give religious groups the same access to school facilities that other non-academic groups have. To comply with the law, the Capistrano board simply banned all non-academic clubs from the campus. The Saddleback Valley board still allows a few service clubs to meet.
The Capistrano school board has also introduced two controversial classroom programs that some parent groups say “undermine the morals and values” of their children. One of those programs, Project Self-Esteem, led to a lawsuit against the school district by a parents’ group. School officials say the project’s intent is to raise the children’s self-esteem so that they refuse drugs and alcohol.
The other program, called Family Life, includes material on sexually transmitted diseases, ways of preventing and dealing with teen-age pregnancy, and homosexuality.
The five traditional-values candidates, Winston L. Frost, Victor R. Domines and Carol E. Cox in Capistrano, and Richard Neuland and H.A. (Al) Beaubier in Saddleback Valley, have charged that the boards ignored parents who opposed its decisions on those issues.
“The board voted 7 to 0 on Family Life even though hundreds of parents opposed it,” said Frost, 27, a lawyer and teacher at a Christian school in San Juan Capistrano. “There is a segment of the community that isn’t being heard. We are trying to get Christians elected and be part of the political process.”
School board members were alarmed earlier in the campaign by letters distributed by Simonds that announced the group’s intention to “take complete control of all local school boards” by electing born-again Christians and “influencing the mind set” of children.
“A school board with five members needs only three Christians to take complete control of a school district,” the letter said. “You can literally own that system and control all personnel, curriculum, materials, textbooks and policies.”
‘Values’ Forum Canceled
A forum at a Laguna Hills hotel on “traditional values in education” that was to be hosted by Simonds and Sheldon was canceled earlier this month when school officials questioned the organizers’ statements that money from the event would be earmarked for educational use in the two districts. The district superintendents said they had not been contacted about the event. Some school officials say they suspect the money would have gone to support school board candidates.
As of Oct. 24, however, the last deadline before the election for disclosing campaign contributions, only Beaubier had received money from Sheldon’s political action committee, and that contribution was only $80.
“If anyone thinks $80 is going to buy me, then I urge that person not to vote for me,” said Beaubier, 44, a medical administrator. The California Coalition for Traditional Values, he said, “has nothing to do with my campaign, and they have never been to my meetings. They simply don’t affect me.”
Anita Burkett, the head of Citizens for Family Strength, a traditional-values group in Capistrano, however, said the candidates it endorses--Cox, Frost and Domines--"call us up and ask us for advice or help” periodically, “and we help them the best we can.” The group is paying for a newspaper insert that “talks about some of the traditional values,” and will be distributed shortly before the election.
But, Burkett said, the three traditional-values candidates are not what she would consider “the cream of the crop.”
“They’re not exactly who we would’ve selected to run, but they met some of the criteria we’re looking for, and we’re doing the best we can with them,” said Burkett, whose husband, Russ Burkett, helped Sheldon and Simonds set up the traditional-values forum.
Cox, Frost and Domines disavow any connection with the group.
Saddleback Valley candidate Neuland, who practices law in Laguna Hills, also disavowed any connections to the groups but added: “I’m not saying that I don’t agree with them.
“Some of what they say makes a lot of sense to me,” he said. “And it offends me that people think that because I go to church regularly I can’t have a valid idea in my head. I’m not an ax-wielding religious radical.”
Incumbent Kister, an attorney in Long Beach, said she has been forced to wage “a $10,000 campaign to protect Saddleback from religious zealots.” She said her real opponents are not Neuland and Beaubier, but Sheldon and Simonds.
Outside Group a ‘Threat’
“We as a community have been of one mind over the last four years,” Kister said. “Now we have an outside group coming in, and they are a real threat. Should they get even the slightest hint that they can get a foot in the door, they will come back even stronger in ’87.”
Incumbent Gilbert, a physician in Newport Beach, said the Saddleback district already “reinforces traditional values” such as respect, honesty and patriotism, which “should be taught by parents, churches and synagogues.”
Of his opponents, Gilbert said: “Their agenda is Sheldon’s agenda, no matter how much they deny it. They won’t be happy until religious clubs are recognized as official school organizations and we have prayer in the schools.”
Capistrano candidate Domines, a financial consultant, has said he supports “silent prayer” in the schools, and Frost has said he is in favor of “voluntary prayer.” Cox said “mandatory prayer is illegal, and I will follow the law.”
Frost’s opponent is Overton, president of a computer consulting company and a member of the Capistrano school board since 1976.
‘Shouldn’t Be Issue’
“I’ve never seen a race like this,” Overton said. “Personal or religious preference can’t be a condition to holding public office, and it shouldn’t be an issue in a school board race.”
The schools, Overton said, “do teach traditional values: honesty, integrity, hard work. Throughout the whole Family Life debate, we said our intention was to get kids through high school drug-free and sex-free. But some groups think we’re controlled by the devil and want to do bad things to their kids. Why would we do that? We’re parents, too.”
James C. Long, an engineer, and David M. Colville, a teacher and athletic director, also are running in the Capistrano race against Overton. Long has made the elimination of bus fees the sole issue of his campaign, while Colville has not campaigned actively. A fifth candidate, Cindi Waters, has dropped out of the race.
The other candidates in the Saddleback Valley race are William C. (Bill) Kohler, a former board member; Richard Welte, a former district superintendent; George W. Carter, a senior editor and instructor, and Bill Harris, president of a manufacturing company. None of the four have campaigned actively.