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Backers, Critics Debate Naming School for Brekke

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Staunch supporters and fierce critics of former school Supt. Norman R. Brekke urged Oxnard School District trustees Wednesday to “do the right thing” during a public hearing to consider whether to rename the district’s newest campus.

Three years ago, the elementary district’s 18th school--scheduled to open in five weeks--was named after Brekke. But a pair of Latino activists petitioned district trustees last month to change the name, arguing that Brekke hindered efforts to integrate schools in the 1970s.

During an emotionally charged meeting attended by more than 100 people at the district board room, the five-member board listened late into the evening to more than 35 audience members comment on whether it was appropriate to rename the campus.

Brekke, his supporters said, did more to put Oxnard on the map than anybody by instituting year-round schools. He developed a national and international reputation as an expert on the subject, and did more to encourage parent participation than anyone up to his time, they said.

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To go back on a decision that a previous board made would dishonor Brekke, who moved to Oregon after retiring in 1994, and show little regard for rules, they said. Some said that retracting the decision could divide the city along racial lines.

“Such ambivalent and vacillating leadership would reflect adversely not only on you, the members of the board, but also the entire Oxnard School District,” said Catherine Mervyn, a 35-year Oxnard resident. “The public will ask you what other decision will you change and how far back will you reach.

“In this already divided city and school district, I beg you . . . let us have some peace,” she said. “Vindictiveness will not get us anywhere.”

Yet those who support changing the school’s name pointed out that the previous school board had violated its own rules. Under a board policy, a school should be named after a geographical area of historical significance or after a person who was dead. Brekke, they argued, is neither.

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“As the school board has violated its own policy, you must take corrective action by bringing yourself into compliance with your own rules,” said Michael Rodriguez, former president of a local chapter of the Mexican American Bar Assn. “Go through the process and properly name your own school.”

Many speakers had an idea of what an alterative name of the school should be. Nearly four dozen supporters of Latino activist Juan Soria came into the meeting, some holding placards reading “Viva Soria.” Others wore T-shirts with the words Juan Laguna Soria Elementary School.

Soria, who died of a heart attack earlier this month, successfully sued the district in 1970 to force it to integrate schools in the mostly Latino La Colonia community.

While Brekke was paid to serve as an administrator, Soria put in years of unpaid work on behalf of the district’s students, his supporters said.

“In the community, he made a difference in the quality of life, which included education, housing [and] civil rights,” Oxnard businesswoman Tila Estrada said.

Estrada and Soria led the effort to have trustees reconsider the school name. They wanted the board to select a name that better reflects the elementary school’s population, which is 77% Latino.

Trustees had avoided discussing the issue before the June 3 special election, fearing that getting embroiled in a racially tinged controversy might hurt chances of passing the $57-million school bond measure.

Once the bond initiative was approved, Trustee Francisco Dominguez scheduled the matter for discussion Wednesday night.

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The school board must move soon if it wants to rename the school before students arrive.

District officials expect the year-round school, across from a strawberry field on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to open to teachers July 29 and receive the first of its anticipated 1,200 students the following day.


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