Orange Unified Quickly Alters Course


A newly elected school board majority moved swiftly to change the direction of the troubled Orange Unified School District, switching law firms, picking new leaders and voiding votes taken last month.

But Monday's hastily called school board meeting, which took even the new board's backers by surprise, was quickly attacked as illegal by those who oppose the new board.

Two weeks ago, voters in the district recalled three conservative school board members by razor-thin margins and replaced them with trustees more sympathetic to the teachers union. Teachers and parents contended that the old board, which at times had an ultraconservative agenda, was driving away teachers with its hard-line stances and low salaries.

The new board members--Kathy Moffat, Melissa Taylor Smith and John Ortega--were hurriedly sworn in Friday morning. Existing trustees Robert Viviano and Bill Lewis drove around the district to deliver oaths of office to their newly elected colleagues. By Friday afternoon, the new board members had called an emergency meeting for Monday and sent out the requisite public notice minutes before the close of business hours on Friday.

"We had some pressing matters," said Viviano, who has been on the board since 1991 and was elected president at Monday's meeting. Lewis, a board member since 1993, will be the new president; Moffat will serve as clerk. Viviano said the emergency meeting was called because board members needed to address pending lawsuits and contracts as soon as possible.

Former board President Kathy Ward and Trustee Terri Sargeant refused to vote on any of the items on Monday's agenda, charging that the meeting was illegal.

Neither Ward nor Sargeant returned calls seeking comment, but Mark Bucher, a lawyer who has advised the district and also volunteered on the campaigns of the defeated board members, said the new members cannot call for a meeting until the old board has "declared them elected."

Bucher's consulting agreement with the district was terminated by the new board Monday.

The district's new lawyer, Spencer Covert of Tustin-based Parker & Covert LLP, told board members he believed the meeting was legal.

Parker & Covert, which has advised the board in the past, will now be its general counsel, at a rate of $160 per hour. It replaces the $200-per-hour Los Angeles firm of Hill-Farrer-Burrill.

The district's high legal fees emerged as an issue in the recall, with teachers and parents charging that the district wastes too much money on costly court battles. Board members directed Covert on Monday to evaluate the district's 10 current lawsuits and report back at the next meeting, which is scheduled for July 19.

Recall supporter Craig Nance said he was initially surprised that the meeting was taking place. "It was better than television," he said.

In other actions, board members:

* Declared a hiring freeze on all positions except principals, assistant principals and teachers.

* Disbanded the district's salary-negotiating team.

* Gutted advisory committees filled with people appointed by the recalled conservative majority.

The new trustees also undid actions taken at the last meeting of the conservative majority, held two days after the recall election but before the election results had been certified by the registrar of voters. At that meeting, the outgoing majority voted to extend administrators' contracts. But that action was nullified Monday.

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