Two and a half years ago, the Westminster school board was the King Kong of school boards—if King Kong had been shrill, self-absorbed and pedantic, a chest-thumping, hairy monster of religiosity with the kind of certainty that comes only to the fundamentalists of any faith.
Led by a three-woman majority—Judy Ahrens, Helena Rutkowski and the Groucho Marxish Blossie Marquez-Woodcock—the board rejected a state anti-discrimination policy designed to protect transgendered students and staff. Depending on your perspective, it was either a bold stand—one that put principle above millions of dollars in state and federal aid—or a blindly ideological gambit that was mind-blowing in its stupidity. Ahrens herself said they called the state's "bluff" in hopes of pleasing God. Then they fell for the state's bluff, knuckling under at the last minute and voting in favor of the very law they'd claimed was eroding society. "I will do everything to protect students from this mindset," Ahrens said at the time—everything except stand by her convictions, apparently.
Nevertheless, the religious zealots' juggernaut seemed poised to roll over gays, transsexuals and minorities—until this spring, when Ahrens and another trustee, Jim Reed, reversed their votes on a crucial hire. That set the scene for a micro-meltdown that reflects the national troubles of the Republican Party. A little background: Vietnamese kids are the Westminster School District's second largest demographic, after Latinos. So, it was sort of natural when, on May 23, the board voted 4-1 to offer the district's top job to a Vietnamese American, Kim Oanh Nguyen-Lam. The Garden Grove Unified School District trustee and associate director of the Center for Language, Minority Education and Research at Cal State Long Beach was moments away from becoming the nation's first Vietnamese American superintendent. But Reed changed his vote the next day, and Ahrens quickly did the same, making it 3-2 against—snatching defeat from victory's gaping maw.
The pair won't explain the about-face. First-time candidate Andrew Nguyen, a custodian at Garden Grove Unified, says the 3-2 vote was racially motivated; Blossie Marquez-Woodcock, Ahrens' former comrade-in-arms, told me Ahrens changed her vote because she found out that Nguyen-Lam was a Democrat. Now, just a few days before the Nov. 7 election, Ahrens and Marquez-Woodcock are up for re-election, and eight challengers are vying against them for three seats. (Reed is not seeking re-election.) Those challengers are pointing to last May's vote as evidence that the current board is, well, run by nuts.
Ahrens couldn't—or wouldn't—tell me why, when I called her last week. She wanted to talk up her platform, which is fundamental schools, the idea of transforming some schools into laboratories of simplicity—reading, writing and math. I asked Ahrens, isn't every Westminster school already supposed to teach the basics?
"Remember, you're talking to a school board member," she said, sounding like my fourth grade teacher Ms. Ellison (it was the '70s). Remember that I called you, I said, sounding like my fourth grade self. "I know who I'm talking to; that's why I called you," I said. "You are a school board member."
"I would like to think [that schools teach the basics] but I'm not seeing it," she replied. Ahrens is a peach: she'd already told me that I sounded young (I'm 36), and dodged me when I asked about the 2004 anti-discrimination policy debacle. I asked her about changing her vote on Nguyen-Lam.
"It's just, I think there was a lack of integrity in the whole process, due to some relationships between people in the voting process," Ahrens said, seeming to suggest that certain persons had made certain campaign contributions, but not actually saying it.
"The process was flawed. And the integrity was compromised," she said. "Obviously, I voted for this person and then some other things came up. And it was my good, clean, clear, honest conscience [that] told me we needed to go back to the table and look at this."
"Look at what?" I asked. She wouldn't say.
"I've got information I could send you," Ahrens told me at one point—and I told her I'd love to see it. Then, she said she was busy. Running for school board takes a lot of time.
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"I'm trying to find some levity to this stressful situation," she'd said when she answered the telephone. "I always tell people you have to run at least once."
Actually, just once would be fine.
A WESTMINSTER SCHOOL DISTRICT CANDIDATES FORUM WILL BE HELD AT STACEY/CLEGG SCHOOL, 6311 LARCHWOOD DR., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 894-7212. THURS., NOV. 2, 7-9 P.M.