One day after a vote to temporarily suspend Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care speakers from sex-education workshops, county Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis on Tuesday blasted members of the Board of Education for their "far-right political agenda."
In his strongest criticism yet of the new conservative board majority, Weis chastised Trustees Marty Bates, Angela N. Miller and Wendy Larner for voting to exclude groups that traditionally have offered Ventura County's teachers information on sex education and HIV/AIDS.
"Mrs. Larner is just acting out her religious right agenda," Weis said. "She keeps talking about how we are hurting kids by having these groups in our workshops. That's just hogwash. None of us in education are out to hurt kids."
The board voted to make the suspension temporary, pending the outcome of a legal opinion requested by Bates on whether the board has the authority to order certain speakers barred from teacher-training sessions sponsored by the county schools office.
Weis said he would have asked for an attorney's opinion anyway because he believes the action is outside the board's jurisdiction. On Tuesday, he instructed his staff to seek advice from county counsel.
Weis also said Tuesday that the relationship between himself and the three-member board majority has become so sour that he briefly considered stepping down from his elected office.
"It's not much fun not being able to fulfill my dream of helping make schools more effective," Weis said. "To sit here and dance with this board, which is playing out their far-right political agenda, is just a waste of my time."
He decided not to quit, Weis said, because the board could then appoint someone who could "do more damage."
The superintendent's comments came one day after the board voted 3 to 2 to suspend Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care speakers from workshops organized by the county schools office.
The county superintendent of schools office provides administrative, business and personnel services to 194 schools in Ventura County's 20 school districts. The office also oversees the education of several hundred students in special education and court schools.
After more than five hours of sometimes contentious debate Monday night, Bates and Miller joined board President Larner in voting for the measure put forth by Larner. Trustees John McGarry and Al Rosen dissented, saying they want more information about what those groups teach before banning them.
Rosen also questioned the legality of the board's action.
"I'm not sure that suspending anyone is appropriate," he said, speaking directly to Larner. "We don't have that power and you know it."
Larner's proposal initially included the Ventura County Public Health Department on the list of groups to be suspended. But Bates said he was uncomfortable targeting the health department and asked for that agency to be dropped.
Bates also requested that any suspension be subject to legal scrutiny, a provision Larner and Miller agreed to add.
The board's action is not expected to have any immediate effect because no workshops dealing with sex education or HIV/AIDS awareness are scheduled for the remainder of the school year, Weis said Tuesday.
Even if the ban extends into the fall, Weis said, superintendents around Ventura County have already told him they will seek information from Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care directly.
Local school boards are autonomous and can invite any speakers they want to teacher-training sessions held by the district, he noted. Still, it may be more difficult for smaller districts, with fewer discretionary dollars and less personnel, to arrange in-house workshops, Weis said.
"It's an extra roadblock in their way," he said.
Weis said he has become increasingly concerned that the Board of Education is overstepping its bounds since Bates and Miller joined it in January. The two were elected in November with backing from conservative Christian organizations.
Larner, elected in 1992, has been openly vocal for several years in her support of religious right ideals.
Weis said his staff has spent numerous hours and used reams of paper answering the new majority's questions about how sex education issues are handled. Meanwhile, he said, more important issues have virtually been ignored.
"We're spending countless hours on family life education instead of spending hours on how to teach kids to read better, teach about social sciences or introduce them to technologies."
Despite the board's relatively limited power, Miller said Tuesday that she believes the suspension vote will send a strong message to parents throughout Ventura County.
"All eyes are looking at us," Miller said. "Our action will encourage other parents to go directly to their school districts and ask for the same changes."
Miller said she had received several calls of support Tuesday congratulating her for "taking a stand and keeping those people out of workshops and out of the classroom."
And she hinted that she and her board colleagues have more changes in mind.
"This is only a first step," she said.