A board majority in a small Orange County school district on Monday risked millions of dollars in funding and a possible state takeover by voting to hold firm to its view that a California antidiscrimination policy violates Christian principles.
In a series of votes over recent months, the three-trustee majority on the five-member board has made the Westminster School District the only one of 1,056 in California to resist a state law that lets students and staff define their own gender. Such a policy, the trustees say, could lead to promotion of a transsexual agenda in the classroom, cross-dressing on campus and boys and girls mixing in school bathrooms.
The stand has prompted state Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell to threaten withdrawal of $7.8 million in annual funding if the district failed to comply with the law by midnight Monday. It also has prompted state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) to propose a state takeover of the district and angry parents to launch recalls against two of the three trustees whose terms do not expire this year.
The result is the latest skirmish in the nation’s culture wars -- a battle between local and higher authorities not unlike that waged by the mayor of San Francisco over gay marriage.
In this case, however, the three trustees are fighting considerable community opposition. Even parents in traditionally conservative Orange County who are sympathetic to the trustees’ concerns question their willingness to place school funding at risk.
“My kids are going to suffer because of the three village idiots,” said parent Louise Morley before Monday’s vote. “You can’t bring religious beliefs into public education.”
And Westminster Mayor Margie L. Rice, a self-described born-again Christian, said she would be willing to help change the state law -- but until it is changed, she told trustees, “Your responsibility now is to obey the law.”
In an emergency meeting Monday before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200, the board’s three defiant trustees voted for a revised policy that grants some of the state’s demands but draws the line at letting students define their gender.
The state is reviewing the district’s revised policy, but O’Connell, the state schools chief, issued a statement late Monday saying he is not impressed. “Every child in this state deserves unequivocal protection from discrimination,” he wrote. “I am disappointed that in 2004 this fundamental civil right is being debated.”
‘Price on Morality’
The three trustees, led by board member Judy Ahrens, have described their position as a stand against moral erosion. “According to the people who are angry at us, there is a price on morality,” Ahrens said in March. “I say: ‘Our kids are not for sale.’ ”
Neither Ahrens, who campaigned for office on a platform that included opposition to the state’s antidiscrimination wording, nor the other two trustees in the majority said anything during Monday’s meeting to explain their position. Police escorted them out of the district office to their cars after the meeting and they all refused to comment to reporters.
Board President James Reed, who has opposed the majority’s stance, said he was frustrated. “I would rather have the state dissolve the board authority and go from there,” Reed said. “I worry about what other laws these board members may be willing to break.”
Once a bedroom community for predominantly white aerospace and industrial workers, Westminster has more than tripled in population, to more than 88,000, since its incorporation in 1957. Its demographics have also dramatically shifted: Nearly 40% of residents are of Asian descent, with the city’s Little Saigon district boasting the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the United States. Politically, it remains conservative, with a plurality of voters registered Republican.
The district, with 17 schools, serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Westminster has had its share of decisive moments, when residents have had to decide whether to accept change or draw the line. In 1946, for example, the Mendez family won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended the Westminster School District’s policy of sending whites and Latinos to separate high schools.
The case resulted in a court order that desegregated all schools in Orange County, which in turn energized a statewide movement and lead to the eventual prohibition of segregation in California.
On Monday, parent Coni Kohan reminded trustees of that court decision. “Once again, it’s us versus the world,” she said. “And I think we’re wrong.”
In 1999, the City Council barred display of the flag of the former nation of South Vietnam on city light poles, angering many in the city’s burgeoning population of Vietnamese emigres.
Unlike previous controversies, however, this question has not divided the community but drawn it together. Few residents have appeared at school board meetings to back the three-trustee majority, while as many as 900 at a time have turned up in opposition.
‘Power of Community’
“I give you credit for uniting this community, because together this community will fight discrimination,” district PTA President Louise MacIntyre told the board before Monday’s vote. “Never underestimate the power of community.”
The saga began in January, when district administrators informed trustees that district policy for handling discrimination complaints was not in compliance with state regulations. Under a 2000 state antidiscrimination law, all school districts’ discrimination complaint procedures must reflect the state’s definition of “gender” as a person’s actual sex or “perceived” sex. Westminster’s policy mentioned gender, but didn’t define it, a position maintained until Monday.
In February, officials from the California Department of Education told the board to make several changes, including adoption of the state’s gender definition, or face loss of some state and federal funding. O’Connell wrote to the board this month, promising to “move with all deliberate speed if you challenge my authority.”
Adding further urgency to the debate, Bank of America in March announced that it would halt a $16-million loan until it could evaluate how the board’s stance could affect the district’s financial security.
After the board majority reiterated its stance April 1, Dunn said he would sponsor emergency legislation to allow a state takeover of the district. Moral debates, he said, should not come at the expense of educating children.
By this time, parents had launched a recall drive against two of the three trustees. Recall proponents hope to put their measures on the ballot for November, when the third trustee will have to seek reelection to remain on the board.
Over the weekend, hoping to satisfy the state while sticking to their principles, the three trustees -- Ahrens, Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock -- called a special meeting for Monday, the state deadline for compliance.
After nearly an hour of comments from residents nearly unanimous against the majority’s stance, the board voted along the same lines -- 3 to 2 -- to adopt a policy that satisfies some of the state requirements. But it also borrowed language from the state penal code to define gender in terms of how a victim is perceived by the person accused of discrimination; the policy explicitly does not allow students or staff to define their own gender.
At Uncle Pete’s Cafe, a Westminster institution, patrons criticized the trustees for continuing to resist state law.
“It’s outrageous. What happened to ‘the republic for which it stands?’ No one individual can stop our whole premise of how we live,” said Roy Olsen, 67, who has grandchildren in Westminster schools.
“It’s using the Constitution against us,” he said. “That’s state-run extortion, isn’t it?”
But Mark Ahrens, son of the board majority’s leader, said his mother has received support from many who are not willing to take a public stand.
“We believe there’s a silent majority,” he said. “Teachers know her as a loving person and many support her, but can’t say it publicly.”
Times staff writers Kevin Pang and Claire Luna contributed to this report.