NEWPORT BEACH — She's been in the school board seat for nearly 30 years, and she'd like to hold onto it for four more.
But Judy Franco, 73, whose tenure on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board of education has elicited cries for term limits, may be facing the challenge of her life for her Area 5 seat in November.
Loretta Zimmerman, 58, who garnered 31% of the vote against Franco four years ago, is hoping to ratchet up her popularity with the general voting public and defeat Franco at the polls.
"I think there's time for new blood," Zimmerman said from her Balboa Island home.
"We need somebody who's more in touch with the classroom," Zimmerman added. "My daughter just graduated from Corona del Mar High School, so I know a thing or two on what goes on in the classroom. I know a thing or two about what's needed on a day-to-day basis."
Franco said while it is true that her four children have long graduated from Newport-Mesa schools, she does have grandchildren in area schools.
"So I'm not as out of touch with the classroom as some might think," Franco said from a booth at Woody's Diner on the Balboa Peninsula, just a few blocks from her Lido Island home.
She's lived there since 1968, when she and her husband, who worked for the city of Los Angeles, moved from Arcadia.
It wasn't until Franco's four children started getting older and attending the district's public schools that she decided to get involved, joining the PTA and winning a school board seat in 1981.
Since then, she's been a formidable incumbent, having been reelected at every turn for every term, leading some to criticize her for "owning" the seat outright.
"I don't 'own' it," said Franco, the daughter of a public school administrator, who was born in Iowa, graduated from high school in Palo Alto and attended UC Berkeley.
"And if I lose," she added, "then it's one race, one bridge too far."
But now is the time, Franco said, that the people reelect her, given Sacramento's financial problems and the current state of fiscal affairs that have dealt Newport-Mesa and its 22,000 students a "double-whammy."
Not only has the state cut out $12 million from the district's budget in "categorical" funds — resulting in more than 100 teacher layoffs and the wholesale dismantling of the district's adult education programs — but property taxes revenue within the school district has declined with the housing market.
Now is not the time, Franco said, to hand the power over to a new board member.
So much is at stake as the financial problems only threaten to get worse as they trickle down from the state's capital, she said.
Zimmerman, of course, begs to differ.
She said she has a decade of government experience working as the assistant to the city manager for San Juan Capistrano in the 1980s.
And, much like Franco, her children took precedent, forcing her to get involved in schools, where she joined the PTA. She helped with her husband's engineering firm while becoming certified as a CERT volunteer for the city of Newport Beach.
"I am running for Newport-Mesa school board because this is an extraordinary time that calls for new leadership in the district beyond protecting the status quo," she said. "In spite of budget cuts, we must find new ways to improve academic achievement and restructure our schools to meet the changing needs and challenges of students today."
One of the criticisms being levied at the present-day school board, with its seven members, is that there is not enough transparency and that it didn't act well enough to protect some of the 100-some teachers who were laid off this school year to plug a $13.5-million hole in the district's operating budget.
Franco said there was nothing the school board could do, except follow California law, which, as spelled out in the state's education code, clearly states that teachers with seniority get to be reassigned into the classroom or are to be spared while relatively new teachers are the first to get the heave ho in the event of terminations.
The handling of the terminations have upset the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, whose president, Kimberly Claytor, among other members, are currently in the midst of interviewing all candidates vying for the four open seats up for election on Nov. 2.
Who the union ends up backing, if anybody, remains to be seen, but outside and inside observers say the races are shaping up to be hot ones.