Overdue Bill Puts Santa Ana School Board Chief on Spot


A long-standing unpaid bill has put the Santa Ana Unified School District in the unusual and uncomfortable position of pursuing its own board president for money.

Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center, administered locally by school board president Nativo V. Lopez, owes the district $27,291.70, according to interviews and invoices supplied to The Times by the school district.

The legal center was billed, most recently in December, for renting space for citizenship and English classes held in 1992, four years before Lopez was elected to the school board.


The now-defunct English Today Institute, a branch of the legal center, used the classroom space. The institute was run by Lopez’s wife, Maria Rosa Ibarra, who is now sick and in Mexico, according to her husband.

In an interview, Lopez said he believed the bill had been forgiven by former school Supt. Rudy Castruita, which Castruita disputes. But now Lopez said he will ask the other legal center board members to pay the bill.

“Apparently, it’s been made an issue,” Lopez said. “I want to give the issue some finality.”

Lopez said he met with Castruita in 1992 or 1993 and was told the district would consider waiving the bill because Hermandad had provided free services ranging from English to civic participation classes. Lopez said he never heard back from the district.

Lopez, executive director of the Santa Ana Hermandad office, who also sits on the board of the legal center, said he never saw a bill after following his discussion with Castruita. The school district sent the first bill in November, 1992, another in January 1994, a third in January 1997, followed by bills in November and December.

When the school district presented him with a copy of the bill either in 1996 or 1997, Lopez noted that it had been mailed to an old Hermandad address.


Lopez added he is open to paying the bill because the money will go to the school district, meshing with Hermandad’s goal of helping the community.

Although the statute of limitations for collecting the funds has run out, the school board wants the money.

“I think the district did the right thing” to seek payment, board member Robert W. Balen said. “There’s a moral obligation there.”

Other board members and district staffers say the bill came up many times over the years but was never resolved because administrators never aggressively sought the money.

Castruita, now the San Diego County superintendent of schools, said he never forgave the bill. He recalled discussing it with Lopez around 1994.

Castruita said he believed a payment plan had been worked out, but he could not recall what happened next.


Forgiving a bill would be illegal under state law because it would amount to a gift of public funds, said Ronald D. Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education, who is advising Santa Ana on this matter. But Lopez and Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares said the school district is permitted under state law to waive fees for some nonprofit organizations, such as Hermandad.

Mijares said the district usually is diligent in pursuing contractors and vendors for unpaid bills. Mijares said that after sending letters and making phone calls, legal action would normally be taken.

But in the case of the Hermandad bill, Mijares said, the bill-collecting process appears to have broken down.

“It came to a halt within our system,” Mijares said. “Everybody says, ‘I didn’t forgive it. I didn’t waive it.’ Well, then, who did?”

Hermandad used federal grant money monitored by the state Department of Education to pay for many of the English Today Institute classes at the district. But Lopez said that grant money was not enough to pay for all those who wanted to attend classes. State education officials say Hermandad’s legal center received $3.7 million in public grants in fiscal year 1992.

The legal center, not wanting to turn people away, dug into its own pockets to provide enough classes, Lopez said. When the grant money ran out in 1992, the English Today Institute realized it had overextended itself and was in debt to a number of organizations, including the school district, Lopez added.


“We took it in the shorts,” he said.

Gabriel Cortina, deputy superintendent for specialized programs with the California Department of Education, said that Hermandad had used its state grant money properly, and that the bill was a matter for the Santa Ana school district to decide.

Spokesman Michael Kharfen of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Hermandad met all federal guidelines for the grant.

But Cortina said Hermandad’s inability to pay the school district bill could affect future allocations. The Department of Education would be reluctant to grant money to an organization, he said, that already has outstanding debts, especially to a school district.

As Hermandad’s local executive director, Lopez has long been the contact point between the legal center and the school board.

Lopez said he is not uncomfortable with his dual roles as Hermandad’s local executive director and school board president and hopes to resolve the matter quickly.

But other board members are not so sure.

“It makes it look like the [school] district was remiss, and that [Hermandad] was remiss in not paying [the bill],” board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said. “It’s probably not a very comfortable issue.”