Unified, Schmunified

Can anyone help OC's most dysfunctional school district?

In the early 1920s, German sociologist Max Weber observed that every revolution goes through three stages of development-before it hits the wall and becomes a bureaucracy.

The Orange Unified School Board hit the terminal stage earlier this month, when its war on public education went bureaucratic. The board is already famous for its landmark court victory eliminating bilingual education in the district before Proposition 227. Now district officials have approved handing $13,500 to a Chula Vista headhunting firm to conduct a nationwide search in an effort to replace outgoing district superintendent Robert French.

The plan, passed unanimously by the seven-member board, marks the second attempt by trustees to fill the shoes of the retiring school chief after board vice president Marty Jacobsen's initial bid to eschew the appointment of a successor to French and instead govern the district by committee was fiercely rejected by the public.

Board critics consider the most recent proposal another move in the board's ongoing campaign to destroy OC's third-largest school district from the inside.

"They aren't interested in a strong leader," said teacher John Rossman, a 14-year veteran of the district. "No person genuinely dedicated to education would want to work for this board."

The Orange Unified Board of Trustees, whose 6-1 conservative majority made it the darling of OC Republican and Christian education reform groups such as Tustin's Education Alliance and Costa Mesa's Citizens for Excellence in Education, gained nationwide prominence by winning the court battle to rid the Orange Unified School District's (OUSD) heavily Latino schools of bilingual education programs.

Locally, the board provoked the passions of irate parents and a bitterly resentful teachers' union by slashing teachers' benefits, eliminating federally funded counseling programs for at-risk students, and attempting to privatize district school-bus service and dismantle the teachers' retirement fund known as the Orange Trust.

Teachers like Rossman say these efforts are a deliberate assault on what remains of teacher morale as well as a repellent for teachers new to the profession.

OUSD teacher salaries are among the lowest in the county, and the district boasts a staggering turnover rate of 80 percent among teachers employed fewer than four years, according to district employment records.

And it is this combination of low morale and high turnover among new teachers that Rossman claims is the fulfillment of the ideologically driven board's objectives.

"They are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that public education doesn't work by maintaining a rolling crisis that is driving the best teachers out of the district and making it a revolving door through which inexperienced teachers enter, learn how to teach, and then leave," Rossman said.

The same might be said for superintendents. Although trustee-related controversy may be OUSD's unhappy trademark in this decade, the district's procession of superintendents-nearly a dozen in less than 20 years-bears witness to a reputation for scandal with roots in the '70s.

A look into the district's administrative history shows the groundwork for strife was laid 20 years ago at the onset of a fraud and embezzlement scandal that resulted in a loss of $4.5 million between 1979 and 1984, as well as grand-jury indictments of one district official and the subsequent arraignment of three trustees against whom charges were eventually dropped.

It was then-superintendent Kenneth Brummel, already by 1984 the second superintendent to take the helm of OUSD since the beginning of that decade, who called for the initial investigation that resulted in the arrests. Brummel was ousted shortly thereafter, reportedly by an embarrassed school board. One teachers' strike and three superintendents later, district chief Dick Donaghue was fired in 1993 after allegations that he sexually harassed employees; Donaghue filed a costly countersuit. Two superintendents later, French hired a private investigator to snoop on the district's top human-resources official, who went on stress leave after tense contract negotiations in the summer of 1996.

After all that OUSD has been through, one might even consider the current school board may be searching statewide for a superintendent candidate simply because no local administrator in his or her right mind would want to inherit OUSD's bruised legacy. But according to board member Linda Davis, there are candidates within the district with their eyes on the top spot, namely assistant superintendents Niel McKinnon and David Perry, but she said the board likes them right where they are.

"They both want the job; it's kind of difficult," Davis said. "McKinnon and Perry would [each] probably do a good job, but we love them where they're at."

Perry and McKinnon declined to comment.

Ultimately, the superintendent search's $13,500 price tag will buy peace of mind for board members, said the board's lone liberal, Bob Viviano. "In the final analysis, [the money] buys the board assurance that we have found the best person available. There's some comfort in doing that."

Rossman remains skeptical. "The school board doesn't want to hire a professional like Niel McKinnon to replace French because professionals like French are dedicated to constantly improving the education that is delivered to our children," he said. He fears the board is trying to undermine traditional public education and replace it with school vouchers and privatization.

Rossman further suggested that the job might be just right for someone seeking a leisurely vocation. "Whoever the school board hires as a superintendent, that person will just be a straw figure," he said. "They will sit at their desk and not do anything. The school board will directly micromanage everything to bring about its ideological objective."

 
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