Firing of an O.C. school superintendent sets the stage for a conservative agenda
Madison Klovstad Miner ran for the Orange Unified school board with financial backing from conservative groups, signaling her ideology with phrases like “parent first” and “education fundamentals.”
On the campaign trail, she stopped short of favoring a ban on critical race theory but said it was “not the best way for our students to become more inclusive, to become more accepting.”
Earlier this month, in her second meeting after narrowly beating an incumbent Democrat, Miner voted with three colleagues to fire the district’s superintendent.
The board’s new conservative majority has not stated a reason for the move, which was opposed by many parents and teachers. But it appeared to be the opening salvo in an effort to bring what is taught in the district’s classrooms in line with conservative values.
“I will not let this district’s reputation be destroyed by a group of extremists that are coming in to tear down the work that we’ve been doing as parents and active members of the community for the last decade and a half,” said Kris Erickson, a Democrat on the school board.
In the November elections, conservative groups backed school board candidates around the state, with limited success.
Where conservatives did take control, as in Orange, the new majorities have begun laying the groundwork for their agendas, despite heated opposition. The conflicts are likely to grow more intense as communities debate proposals that seek to remake public education.
A new conservative Christian majority on the Temecula Valley school board immediately banned critical race theory — an academic framework that seeks to examine how racial inequality and racism are embedded in legal systems, policies and institutions — then called a special meeting last week that adjourned early amid protests and fears that the board would fire the superintendent.
The board majority in Orange, consisting of four of the seven members, has commissioned an academic audit that could be a jumping off point for conservative reforms. The audit will include subjects like sex education and ethnic studies, board President Rick Ledesma told the Orange County Register.
Sprawled across several inland cities, the Orange school district serves 25,000 students and has become more diverse in recent years. Nearly 60% of students are Latino, a quarter are white and 9% are Asian American.
The mostly middle-class district is anchored by the city of Orange and also covers schools in the affluent communities of Anaheim Hills and Villa Park, as well as working-class areas of Garden Grove and unincorporated county neighborhoods.
According to the California Department of Education, 44% of students are economically disadvantaged and 19% are English-language learners.
Major clashes surrounding the school board date to at least 2001, when three conservative members were successfully recalled. The pandemic brought contentious battles over mask mandates and vaccines.
In the November election, four conservatives, including Miner and Ledesma, ran as a slate, pledging a “back to basics” approach that would be independent of the teachers union and supportive of charter school parents.
A trio of pro-charter school and pro-conservative political action committees, led by the Lincoln Club of Orange County State PAC, spent $87,000 backing three of the four candidates, with Ledesma declining to raise money.
Miner and Ledesma won, but the other two lost against incumbents endorsed by the teachers union, including Erickson.
The other members of the conservative majority are John Ortega and Angie Rumsey, whose terms did not expire in November.
Ledesma, Ortega and Rumsey did not respond to requests for comment.
Miner, who squeaked onto the board by 221 votes, sends her children toOrange County Classical Academy, a charter school that offers a “classical education” emphasizing Western civilization and Judeo-Christian concepts.
As a candidate, she favored aligning the district’s ethnic studies curriculum with the conservative-dominated Orange County Board of Education, which has suggested alternatives to the state curriculum, including one that celebrates Black excellence and rejects “victimhood culture.”
“I believe ethnic studies is important. I don’t want a divisive program that further isolates our children,” Miner said in a text message to The Times.
“The candidates had good messaging,” said Jackson Reese, who consulted on a trio of Orange Unified campaigns this last election before becoming vice president of the California Policy Center, a right-wing think tank based in Tustin. “Their message aligned with some national issues that were hot dinner-table conversations that had practical effects on people in their district.”
The vote to fire Supt. Gunn Marie Hansen and appoint Edward Velasquez, a retired administrator from outside the district, as interim superintendent took place behind closed doors over winter break on Jan. 5.
Before the vote, parents and teachers expressed outrage over Hansen’s firing in a meeting that lasted four hours. Some were upset that Ledesma had called the meeting with only a day’s notice.
The four conservative trustees also voted to put Assistant Supt. Cathleen Corella on leave and appoint an interim administrator to replace her. Some critics referred to the sudden personnel changes as the “Thursday night massacre.”
“The fact that it was done with such little notice felt unethical at a minimum,” parent Emily Lawrence said in an interview. “It also felt extremely political for what should be a nonpartisan board.”
State Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) called the personnel changes a “reckless decision” that could cost the district $1.3 million, not including potential legal fees, and sent a letter to Ledesma demanding answers on whether the conservative board members privately discussed the firing in violation of the Brown Act, a state open-meetings law.
Supporters of Hansen and Corella say the two educators have balanced competing interests amid polarizing times.
Hansen led a phased plan that gave students the choice to return to in-person learning as early as September 2020 while also offering remote and hybrid options. Other large districts in Orange County remained fully remote during the first year of the pandemic.
“They stand that line in the middle and don’t really listen to the hubbub of left or right,” Linda Horist, a retired teacher, said of Hansen and Corella. “They don’t get sucked into the noise that’s all around us these days.”
Rosa Otero, a parent, was one of the few at the meeting who spoke in favor of the board’s decision. She criticized the previous board majority for ignoring parents angry about mask mandates.
“I do believe we need some change,” she said. “It’s been years that we’ve had the same superintendent.”
Velasquez said in a message to the district that he plans to serve as superintendent until a permanent replacement is found.
Erickson, the Democratic school board member, believes the push to fire Hansen may have stemmed from a battle over the Orange County Classical Academy — the same charter school that Miner’s children attend.
The school was co-founded by the California Policy Center and Dr. Jeff Barke, a Newport Beach physician who is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing group known for spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
In December 2019, district administrators recommended that the school be denied a charter to operate, citing concerns that it provided an “unsound education program.” But the board narrowly approved the charter.
Now, the school is planning to expand countywide with two more campuses after gaining approval from the Orange County Board of Education.
Erikson believes the school’s supporters were so offended by Hansen’s opposition that they launched a campaign against her.
“There was a real push to paint her as a leftist ever since, and they did that through COVID by saying things like she was pro-mask and pro-vaccination,” Erickson said.
At the Jan. 5 school board meeting, opponents of the conservative majority gathered contact information from people who would support a recall campaign.
Lee Tousignant, a father of three elementary school children in the district, signed up. He is a registered Republican but thinks Hansen handled the pandemic well.
“It was certainly not fun for any family,” Tousignant said. “But our district did an admirable job of taking care of our kids.”
In a letter to the board and school community, Erickson and fellow trustees Andrea Yamasaki and Ana Page said they were excluded from the deliberations and called on the conservative majority to rescind the personnel changes.
“This act has created chaos and fear among employees, and it chips away at the trust parents, students, and the community have in us,” they wrote.
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