In Westminster, an Orange County melting pot that started as a Presbyterian temperance colony more than a century ago, school board meetings have grown so nasty that some members receive police escorts to their cars afterward.
Five high-level administrators in the Westminster School District have quit, contract negotiations with the teachers union are at a stalemate and, two years ago, the district nearly lost millions in funding when it balked at adopting an antidiscrimination policy that protects transgender students and staff.
The latest uproar came last month, when the board hired a respected Vietnamese American educator as the district’s new superintendent and then, a week later, rescinded the offer without explanation.
Leaders in Westminster’s prominent Vietnamese community were furious, and parents now worry that the constant dysfunction and chaos in the district will inevitably trickle down to the classroom.
“We have a very lovely little school district. It shouldn’t be like this at all. It wasn’t until recently, very recently,” said school board member Jo-Ann Purcell. “It will be a long time before this district gets back on its feet.”
The Westminster School District, which has an $80-million budget, serves 10,000 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade in Westminster and some portions of Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Midway City.
Reflecting those communities, the student population is diverse: Asians make up a third of the enrollment, Latinos nearly 39%, and whites about 20%.
For a district in which nearly half of the students are English-learners, and many are from low-income families, the schools have tested relatively well in English and math proficiency, state education figures show.
Parents and teachers fear that may change if school administrators and teachers continue to leave because of the turmoil. The district’s last superintendent, Sheri Loewenstein, announced her resignation in November after 16 months on the job.
“It’s getting to the point that it’s really affecting the morale of the district,” said PTA president Mariela Bridgewaters, who has five children, ages 8 to 18, and whose husband, Karl, plans to run for the school board in November.
“Eventually, it’s going to affect the kids.”
A half-century ago, the Westminster area was a middle class, largely white suburb of Los Angeles surrounded by orange groves and bean fields.
In the decades since, those crops disappeared to make way for neighborhoods and a steady influx of residents -- including a large number of Latino and, more recently, Vietnamese families.
Throughout this time of change, issues of ethnicity and race have never been far from the surface.
In 1945, five Mexican American fathers sued the Westminster School District because it forced their children to attend “Mexican” schools separate from white classmates.
That suit, Mendez vs. Westminster, ended segregation in California schools, and was decided seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education ended the practice nationwide.
In the decades since, Vietnamese immigrants who fled their homeland after the South Vietnamese government fell in 1975 were drawn to Westminster and surrounding areas.
Known as Little Saigon, the area has the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.
So when the school district board voted 4-1 on May 23 to name KimOanh Nguyen-Lam, associate director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at Cal State Long Beach, the district’s new superintendent, the Vietnamese community rejoiced.
Nguyen-Lam’s appointment was big news in Vietnamese-language newspapers, television and radio.
She would have been the nation’s first Vietnamese-American school superintendent.
A week later, when the board rescinded the appointment on a 3-2 vote in closed session, charges of racism were leveled at the three white board members who voted to withdraw the job offer.
Board members Judy Ahrens, Blossie Marquez, Sergio Contreras and James Reed initially supported Nguyen-Lam’s appointment. Purcell was the lone opponent.
But within hours of the vote, Reed said he changed his mind -- angry that, in a closed board meeting, Contreras accused Purcell of being a racist.
When a special board meeting was called to revisit the issue a week later, Ahrens also changed her vote.
Reed said he had supported the appointment, though he did not think she was qualified for the post, only because Nguyen-Lam had a majority of the board on her side and he wanted to show solidarity.
“There was no point in showing Dr. Nguyen-Lam that there was some board solidarity here, not when Mr. Contreras spewed forth such ridiculous” accusations, Reed said.
Reed said that of the seven finalists for the post, six are Latino. Still, Tony Lam, a community activist and former Westminster councilman for 10 years, said he thinks race was a major factor in the decision.
“The community is very upset,” he said. “Three of the nitwits on the board think they are the queen of England.”
Nguyen-Lam this week said she’s not sure she wants the job anymore.
“There is a lot of fragmentation on the board and I’m not sure if I take it, that I can get anything done,” she said.
On Thursday, about 500 people holding flags and signs rallied in front of district headquarters during a board meeting and urged trustees to reinstate Nguyen-Lam. The board took no action.
“The school board is strange,” said Daniel Do-Khanh, spokesman for Keep Our Voice, Keep Our KimOanh, a grass-roots coalition that organized the rally Thursday.
“What people are realizing is that they need to pay more attention to the local politicians.”
The board has been sharply divided since at least 2004, when the district nearly lost $8 million in annual state and federal funding when it hesitated to adopt a state-mandated antidiscrimination policy that allowed school employees and students to define their own gender.
The board approved compromise language after four months, but the episode attracted national scrutiny and created a schism on the board.
Three board members at the time -- Ahrens, Marquez and Helena Rutkowski -- staunchly opposed the gender policy, saying it contradicted their Christian beliefs.
A recall effort to unseat Ahrens and Marquez failed, but Rutkowski lost her seat in her next election.
She was succeeded by Contreras, who has been at odds with the local teachers union despite the fact that he works for the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles.
The tension in the district “is due to a three-board majority led by Sergio Contreras,” said Janet Brubaker, president of the Westminster Teachers Assn.
“He sneers, he’s disrespectful, he’s rude, and he doesn’t listen to anyone who has any viewpoint that’s not his.”
Contreras, 32, denies that he has created difficulties.
“I’m one vote. I’m not that powerful. It’s a five-member board,” he said. “That’s political finger-pointing. That’s what they do best.”
The union, which has been working without a contract since July and has not received a cost-of-living wage increase in three years, recently declared that it had reached an impasse in negotiations with the district, clearing the way for a state mediator to step in.
Along with the stalled negotiations, five district administrators have quit within a year, and, in addition, an assistant superintendent, two principals and two assistant principals plan to leave at the end of the school year.
Brubaker said several teachers also are interviewing with other districts.
Jon Archibald, who was the district’s well-regarded assistant superintendent of business services, in August left to take a job with the Orange Unified School District.
Archibald worked in Westminster for four years, and said the last 18 months of his tenure were the most contentious.
“We had a good team there, and the district was moving forward. Then the board kind of took some other direction,” he said, declining to be more specific.
“I decided it was time to make a different choice in my career.”
Marquez, the board’s president, disputed that Archibald or any administrators have had difficulty working with the board.
“This is normal change, absolutely,” she said.
“Whenever we have the end of the year, it’s the summer, teachers retire, principals move, they decide to go to other districts.”
Some parents don’t see it that way, and worry the loss of good teachers, principals and other school staff members will translate into the loss of a good education for their children.
“There’s no stability,” said Thu Tran, a 29-year-old mother with three children at Hayden Elementary in Midway City.
“They have to find a way to solve this. It affects every school, every student.”