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Superintendent Post Left Open

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Times Staff Writer

Deep into Thursday evening, the Westminster school board listened to pleas to rehire a superintendent whose job offer had been quickly rescinded last month.

The board finally adjourned without taking action.

If KimOanh Nguyen-Lam is rehired, she will be the first Vietnamese American superintendent in the United States.

Many in the community said the job was taken from her because of racism. In interviews this week, school board members Sergio Contreras and Blossie Marquez agreed that racism played a role in the decision to withdraw the offer. Nguyen-Lam had been dismissed, Marquez said, “out of just pure prejudice.”

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Some community members disagree. According to Stephanie Erickson, a community activist, Nguyen-Lam was hired because certain board members appeared to be working with her “to promote a Hispanic and Vietnamese agenda.” The board, she said Thursday, should begin the search for an “honest, qualified superintendent as soon as possible.”

Last month, board members Judy Ahrens and James Reed abandoned their support for Nguyen-Lam seven days after voting to hire her. Reed said he never thought Nguyen-Lam was qualified but had initially voted for her to show solidarity with the board majority. Ahrens did not return calls seeking comment.

Sylvia Mendez, a retired nurse whose 1945 lawsuit against the Westminster School District ended segregation in California schools, was among the leaders of a protest staged outside council chambers Thursday night.

“I understand how KimOanh feels and how all of our community feels,” she said, “because my Mexican classmates and I too were told that we were not qualified -- that we were not good enough or smart enough, when we knew we were capable of anything. I am back to join you who, like the parents who came together so many years ago at this very same district, are here to demand fairness for our children.”

The community protest came the same day trustees received a letter from attorneys for Nguyen-Lam, alleging the district had violated state and federal laws by offering her the position and then withdrawing the offer for no stated reason.

Nguyen-Lam, who holds a doctorate in integral studies, is associate director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at Cal State Long Beach. She is also a trustee at the Garden Grove Unified School District.

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On May 23, the board voted 4 to 1 to hire Nguyen-Lam, with trustee Jo-Ann Purcell opposed. Seven days later, trustees rescinded the offer.

“Today we say, ‘No more’ to back-room and closed-session politics,” Daniel Do-Khanh, a spokesman for the coalition that organized the rally, said Thursday. “Today we will say, ‘We will vote you out.’ ”

Added Nguyen-Lam herself, addressing the crowd and referring to the board in English, Vietnamese and Spanish: “They’re public servants; they can no longer behave like this. We’re here to demand fairness and respect. We’re here to put our children first. Racism still exists today -- in November we will speak by our votes.”

About 500 people filled the parking lot in front of district headquarters holding U.S. flags and signs bearing such slogans as “Justice Will Prevail,” “Support Our Community” and “We want Answers.”

At the same time, other protesters registered voters vowing to oppose the three board members who voted against Nguyen-Lam, two of whom -- Ahrens and Reed -- are up for reelection in November.

“You can ignore me because I’m a person of color ... you can ignore me because I look young,” said 20-year-old Ngoc Anh Nguyen, a student at UCLA, “but come this November, you will listen to me.”

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The district, which has 550 teachers and serves about 10,000 students from Westminster, Midway City, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach, has been marred with controversy in recent years.

Five of the district’s top administrators resigned within the last year. The most recent superintendent, Sheri Loewenstein, announced her resignation after only 16 months on the job. Mel Lopez will leave today after less than two months as interim superintendent.

Teachers in the district have been working without a union contract since July and have picketed board meetings. The district and the union have not been able to reach an agreement, so the state will mediate contract discussions.

Two years ago, the district nearly lost $8 million in annual state and federal funding when board members balked at adopting a state-mandated antidiscrimination policy allowing school employees and students to define their own genders. The board approved compromise language after four months and avoided losing revenue.

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