Newport-Mesa Race Comes to a Boil at Forum


One of the most contentious board races in the history of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District continued Friday with a volley of heated charges exchanged over breakfast in the main ballroom of the exclusive Balboa Bay Club.

Board member Sherry Loofbourrow, documents in hand as her proof, charged that her challenger, Jo Ellen Allen, belongs to an extremist group that tried to have the novel "Of Mice and Men" and the movie "Romeo and Juliet" banned at school districts across the nation.

"Unfortunately, she knows nothing," Allen shot back.

Wendy Leece debated incumbent Rod MacMillian as to whether his 24 years on the board was long enough.

Further, the challengers accused the incumbents of being a cozy club that has kept the public at arm's length on important issues; not so, responded the incumbents.

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, the six candidates discussed a variety of issues, including sex education, censorship, reassignment of principals and how much say parents have had in running the district's 26 schools.

About 100 to 150 people were at the forum, whose host was the Newport Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce. Lawyer Jim Parker moderated the event, one of the last before the at-large election Tuesday in the district. About 16,000 students from Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Corona del Mar attend district schools.

At the forum were incumbent MacMillan, 62, of Corona del Mar and challenger Leece, 41, of Costa Mesa; incumbent Judith A. Franco, 52, and challenger Karen Evarts, 48, both of Newport Beach; incumbent Loofbourrow, 48, and challenger Allen, 43, both of Corona del Mar.

In a related action Friday, the 700-member Newport Mesa Federation of Teachers cast its support to incumbents Franco, Loofbourrow and MacMillian. It was the first endorsement in the teachers union's 21-year history.

"It was felt that because of the affiliations of some of the opposing candidates with organizations which advocate censorship of textbooks, class content and libraries, that the interests of students, teachers and the community will best be served by the incumbents," the association announced in a prepared statement.

During the Balboa Bay Club forum, Loofbourrow said Allen is a member of Eagle Forum, a national political organization that the California Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students Inc. (now the proper name for the state organization still known as the PTA) has labeled extremist. Allen is state president of the conservative women's organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, a proponent of traditional roles for women.

According to the PTA, Eagle Forum has tried to persuade school districts to ban districts John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," director Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Shel Silverstein's poetry book, "A Light in the Attic." The PTA also contends that Eagle Forum has worked closely with Citizens for Excellence in Education, a group based in Costa Mesa that argues that public schools are dominated by an atheist ideology.

Allen said that neither she nor the state branch of Eagle Forum participated in any attempt to censor books or films.

"I am not an extremist, no matter what the PTA says," said Allen, who emphasized her 15-year teaching career and who is now a lecturer at USC. "Censorship is not my job. I have no hidden agenda, and sex education is not the reason I am running. Academic excellence is."

Allen and also Leece have said, however, that they want abstinence to be the chief focus of the district's sex education programs, and they contend that some films and books are not appropriate for some schoolchildren.

Both are backed by the Committee to Restore Ethical and Traditional Education, a group that supports "traditional values" and that wants to ban such films as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Breakfast Club" from classrooms.

Board and the Public

Turning to the matter of parents' relationship with the district, Franco denied charges by Evarts, Leece and Allen that the board always votes unanimously and that it neither considers nor respects public opinion on major policy questions.

"We get a tremendous amount of input from teachers, parents and students," Franco said. "Our decisions are reached after lengthy deliberation. It takes time to be conversant with the issues before we vote."

According to a high-ranking district official, the district has stressed parental involvement for years, and parents have been heavily involved in advisory councils for developing a sex education curriculum. Parents can also review class materials and keep their children out of certain courses, she said.

"We are doing everything we are accused of not doing," Loofbourrow said.

Said Leece: "I would like to go back to the Founding Fathers of this country, when parents were the primary teachers of their children. We have gotten away from this, and it has caused teen-age pregnancy, promiscuity and drugs. We need to work with parents."

Leece, who describes herself as a fundamentalist Christian, teaches two offspring at home and sends a third to Calvary Chapel High School in Santa Ana. She says she represents thousands of parents who are dissatisfied with public schools.

"You must take part in the system if you want to run," MacMillian said. Leece "has never taken part."

Franco faces a strong challenger in Evarts, a Newport Beach library board member who has raised the most campaign contributions--$12,000--so far.

At the forum, Evarts said she would like to replace Superintendent John Nicoll and put fresh blood in the administration. She said Nicoll and the board were especially rude in their dealings with parents and students when they decided to swap principals at two high schools in 1988.

The incumbents said some mistakes were made but that the principals, who were looking for jobs outside the district before the swap, are now satisfied.

Asked how district expansion could be accomplished in light of the public's aversion to taxes, Allen said she would have to meet with parents to see what they would like.

Loofbourrow said the board is now researching ways to accommodate rising enrollment, that it is looking at land management methods, refurbishing schools and working with the Irvine Co. to develop new campuses.

Turning to the subject of MacMillian's 24 years on the board, Parker asked him whether he has served long enough, as Leece contends he has. MacMillian responded that he has been involved with youth organizations, schools and sports since 1947 and that he has no intention of losing the race.

"I'm not tired," he said.

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