A passerby would never know it from the tranquillity of Orange's quaint downtown, with its old-fashioned drugstore and traffic circle, but this city is home to one of the most fractious, battle-scarred school systems in the state.
Name an education-related hot button and the Orange Unified School District has pushed it to the point of pitched battle. Bilingual education. Gay clubs on campus. Clinics at schools. Teachers deserting the district en masse.
Now, two classically opposed groups are the main forces behind a mudslinging recall campaign against three school board members, a campaign that is drawing interest from around the state and as far away as Washington, D.C. The Christian conservative movement, which has made no bones about its antipathy to teachers unions, is supporting the last high-profile school board in the region to have a hard-line conservative majority. And the mighty state teachers union is throwing its weight behind the recall effort.
"This is like the Arabs and Israelis," said Louise Adler, chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Cal State Fullerton. "They have turned Orange into Jerusalem."
If the community is ground zero for an ideological showdown, it's not readily apparent on the streets and in the sidewalk cafes of Old Towne, where young kids zip on skateboards in front of vintage buildings that date to the city's orange-growing origins in the 1880s.
For the locals, the recall campaign will probably be most visible in mailboxes, which are likely to be stuffed with last-minute mailers as Tuesday's election approaches.
For outsiders, though, the recall campaign has become a referendum on issues that extend far beyond district boundaries.
The establishment GOP is vigorously backing the board members in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election and has staked its influence on the outcome; on the other side, the California Teachers Assn. is committed to seeing the board go down.
"You've got a board whose view is there shouldn't be a union and a union radicalized by all these years of conflict," said Adler, an expert in administrative conflict and the politics of education who has been active in the county's Democratic Party. "Both sides have blown it."
A personal appeal mailed to Republican voters from Orange County GOP Chairman Tom Fuentes encouraged contributions of $100 to stop "the Democrats and union bosses." (Two of the replacement candidates are registered Democrats, although the Orange Recall Committee is dominated by Republicans.)
Two-thirds of the $89,078 raised by the anti-recall group Stop The Union Takeover has come from outside the district.
And more than half the $69,614 war chest of the recall committee comes from the local teachers unions and the massive CTA.
The election has caught the attention of Washington, D.C.-based People for the American Way, a group that tracks and opposes the religious right.
"This is a bit of a test case on the popularity of a school board that is implementing a very far right-wing agenda," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for the group.
The Christian conservative group Focus on the Family also is taking an interest in the campaign.
"This locally elected and supported school board is being threatened by a national teachers union," said Dick Carpenter, an education analyst with the Colorado-based group.
Targeted board members insist that their motivations have nothing to do with religion, though their agenda mirrors that set down by Christian conservative groups.
Trustees' Backers Aim to Defeat Union
Supporters of the three trustees say their goal is to vanquish the state teachers union, which they contend controls almost every district in California.
If the recall is successful, said board supporter Mark Bucher, the CTA will "do a recall whenever they don't like the way someone votes."
Bucher was a founding member of the Orange County Education Alliance, which sprang up in the early 1990s with the goal of placing anti-union conservatives--most of whom were Christian--on school boards.
The alliance's power has waned in recent years, as conservatives were voted off boards and other candidates failed to step forward. Orange is the last conservative school board standing, Bucher said, and holding out against the teachers union here is crucial.
The union contends that it is involved principally because conditions for teachers have gotten so bad.
"It's salary," said Shirley Guy, a consultant from the state union who is advising the recall. "It's working conditions. It's attitude. It's respect. We're not involved with this because of its national implications."
On the other hand, she said, a win "will have a positive effect on other teachers. It will have a ripple in the area."
There is no disputing that matters have reached a contentious pass in the district. About 700 of the district's 1,500 teachers have left in the last few years, in many instances replaced by less-experienced teachers.
"We feel that the present school board does not support public education," said Paul Pruss, president of the Orange Unified Education Assn., the local teachers union. "Basically, what is at stake is nothing less than the survival of Orange Unified as a provider of quality education."
And so after parents and teachers held a meeting at a local church, the petition-gathering began last summer to recall board members Maureen Aschoff, Martin Jacobson and Linda Davis and replace them with more moderate candidates; two of the conservative trustees on the seven-member board were not targeted. If successful, it would be the first recall of school trustees in Orange County since 1987. The district's students hail from Orange, the adjoining affluent town of Villa Park and small parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove.
"We're basically involved in a philosophical contest here, to see who is going to prevail," said Jacobson.
The majority and the union "cannot co-exist," Jacobson said.
But as for where it started, why this school system and its teachers cannot get along--well, even long-timers have a hard time putting a finger on that. The Orange schools have a history of rancor that well predates the current board. For a while, they went through superintendents about as quickly as a class of seventh-graders can wear down a substitute teacher.
Perhaps, some surmise, it started in the 1970s, those flush days before Proposition 13 put the brakes on property taxes, a time when the school board gave teachers especially lucrative retirement packages.
During the financially tighter 1980s, boards began trying to make ends meet while keeping the retirement package in place--which made for tense salary negotiations.
In 1988, teachers went on strike over stalled negotiations, with some living in tents outside campus in protest and others fasting. That gave rise to an unsuccessful recall petition that year; another followed in 1992.
Teachers grew angrier over salaries that by all accounts are lower than average for the area. And Christian conservatives started coming to power on various school boards in Southern California, including in Orange in 1993.
This, then, was the backdrop for the bitterly contested 1997 election that saw a more hard-line majority come to power. These new candidates were not groomed by the Education Alliance, though they have since won the allegiance of its founders. The new power alliance launched a litany of conservative initiatives that sat badly with teachers. Many in the community, however, embraced them.
First, the board attempted to drive social services such as free counseling and medical care from district schools. It ultimately backed off but since has rejected grants for student counseling and job training.
Next the trustees virtually eliminated bilingual education a full year before a statewide voter initiative did the same thing.
The board has also trumpeted a "back to basics" educational philosophy--popular among Christian conservatives and many more mainstream factions, but not among teachers.
The issue that gained the district nationwide notoriety was the 1999 proposal to form a gay-straight student club at El Modena High School.
After the board rejected the application, students sued, backed by national civil rights groups. The lawsuit cost thousands in legal fees before the board settled by allowing the club, provided students don't discuss sex.
The fight made the evening news as abortion foes from Utah and black-clad anarchists protested along campus borders.
But what rankled teachers most was the board's swift move to scale back on the expensive retirement package, while salaries inched upward. This set off a series of lawsuits and complaints to labor boards on both sides.
Board members say their hard line will ensure solvency, but Orange teachers contend the district is in good financial shape and can afford to boost pay.
Last year the district imposed a contract that triggered a one-day strike. Tuesday's recall effort was hatched in the aftermath.
Supporters of the current board point to these battles as proof that they have the courage to stand up to such special interests as the teachers unions and national civil rights groups.
Anita Lucarelli was a fierce supporter of the board as it fought the gay club at El Modena, where her son graduated in 1995, and vows to vote against the recall.
"They want the union to run the board instead of the people," she said.
But board member Bill Lewis, a conservative who backs the recall, said he believes his colleagues are not listening to the people. Instead, they are captivated by their stature as the last conservative board around.
"A lot of board members think they're celebrities," he said. "Around the state, people tell us we're doing a great job."
Teacher Departures Sway Some Voters
Back at home, many parents who once ardently supported the board are now turning against it because of the exodus of teachers.
"I'm a Christian," said mother Kelly Walker, a former board supporter who now backs the recall effort. "I think this board has done some wonderful things. I was so thankful [about their opposition to the gay club] . . . but I don't want my son's teacher to leave the district."
Many other parents, however they might feel about the board, are showing dissatisfaction with the schools in the most obvious of ways--by keeping their children out.
Old Towne, with its picturesque antique shops, continues to attract well-off young home buyers--who then put their kids in private school.
"People used to move here because of the perception that it was an excellent district," said broker Al Ricci. "Now people are asking what else is available, what private schools there are."
The private Lutheran High School in Orange, for example, has received about 400 applications for next fall's freshman class, up from 300 last year.
"People are frustrated with the public system," said Mark Davis, director of admissions and no relation to Linda Davis.
Orange Councilman Michael Alvarez says real estate agents in high-priced Villa Park neglect to tell buyers they will be in the Orange schools.
"Even the name of the district turns people off," Alvarez said.
Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.
Recall: A look at the players in special election in Orange. B11