Sergio Contreras ran for a seat on the Westminster School District Board of Trustees twice before winning in 2004. Immediately, he found himself in charge of picking up the pieces of a district that had become a national laughingstock. Previous trustees nearly lost tens of millions of dollars' worth of funding when they resisted a law change that would have protected transgender students and teachers.
"Education changed my life," says Contreras, now a Westminster city councilman and the senior manager of education for the Orange County United Way. "I remember the exact moment I wanted to be involved in education. When I was doing my undergrad, I interned at a juvenile hall. . . . I worked with people who looked like my family, my friends, teaching them math and reading. I saw what happens when people don't have access to opportunity for whatever reason. I wanted to do what I could to help people not get [to juvenile hall]."
Undeterred by the situation, Contreras and fellow board members worked to repair their school district. In the eight years he sat on the board, Westminster schools introduced all-day kindergarten and expanded access to art, music and technology. The district finally began to offer English as a Second Language programs to its students, who are mainly Vietnamese, though there's also a large population of Latinos. Because of the friends he had growing up, Contreras speaks English, Spanish and a good amount of Vietnamese.
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In 2012, he was elected to the Westminster City Council, hoping to help right the city as he did its schools. "[Westminster] has always had everything I wanted. Everything I need is there," says Contreras, who has lived his entire life and is raising his family in the city. "You visit other places, but it's the place I want to be.
"When I was elected, Westminster didn't have a direction—it just kind of existed," the dark-haired, dark-eyed 40-year-old continues. "We hadn't revised our general plan since the 1990s; we didn't have a parks plan. Our neighboring cities—Seal Beach, Huntington Beach—are growing. I don't want Westminster to miss out on that."
First, Contreras says, the city must revise its general plan, to know where it's going, so it can focus on building revenue and improving safety. Eventually, Contreras hopes Westminster will be attractive enough to keep the people who live there living there, that others will be able to see the beauty of the All American City.
"I feel like I'm really lucky," says Contreras, whom Democratic Party activists would love to see run for higher office someday. "I really am. I get to serve the people I grew up with in ways I could've never imagined. That's what keeps me going every day. I'm living the American Dream. Westminster's got its problems, but we can fix them. There's room for all of us."