Rossmoor directors split over county Education Board venue approval

Directors, residents, trade barbs at contentious hearing

The Rossmoor Community Services District Board of Directors voted 3-2 Tuesday to allow the Orange County Board of Education to rent a community facility to discuss a politically charged topic that many residents fear will bring unnecessary danger to their sleepy, bedroom community.

At issue was whether to allow the county board to rent the Rush Park auditorium to hold Community Forums about Critical Race Theory, a loosely defined topic that has suddenly become a hot topic across America.

The RCSD special meeting had been prompted by an uproar that erupted after General Manager Joe Mendoza approved an application for rental of the Rush Park auditorium for two meetings, one on July 27 and another on Aug. 4, organized by the Orange County Board of Education.

The Orange County Board of Education, which comprises five trustees elected to four-year terms, has virtually no authority over local school districts or their curriculum. Instead, its responsibilities include approving charter schools and hearing inter-district transfer and expulsion appeals.

The board also approves the annual budget of the Orange County Department of Education, a separate agency that serves some of the county’s most vulnerable student populations and supports local districts with services necessary for their operations, including high-speed internet access and security, professional development, legal and fiscal guidance, payroll services and student enrichment.

Following the Los Alamitos Unified School Board’s decision to adopt an elective course on ethnic studies, the county board had decided to hold two county-wide forums to “educate” residents on CRT.

During the year-long debate before adopting the elective ethnic studies course, LAUSD District Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver and the district’s school board have repeatedly said they have no intention of teaching critical race theory.

RCSD Board President Dr. Jeffrey Barke, a former member of the LAUSD board, has been a strong and vocal opponent of LAUSD’s decision to implement an elective course on ethnic studies.

His wife Mari is an elected member of the Orange County Board of Education.

Ken Williams, Jr., OCBE President, acknowledged during the meeting that he had discussed the use of Rush Park auditorium with Ms. Barke, though he said neither that discussion nor the Los Alamitos Unified decision to implement an ethnic studies course had influenced the decision.

It had “absolutely nothing to do with our decision to go forward” with these special forums, claimed Williams.

“Why are we using this auditorium (Rush Park),” rhetorically asked Williams, because “the facilities at the Orange County Department of Education are limited to 200 and we anticipate 350 people” attending, he said, answering his own question.

Moreover, Williams, said Rush Park was an “incredible auditorium,” with a seating capacity of 500, which is “more than what we need.” 

Also, Williams said Rush Park had the audio and video facilities required by the Brown Act and that the cost to the Orange County Department of Education, which provides audio and video support and livestreams county board meetings, “is nominal as compared to other private facilities which may be inappropriately and excessively expensive.”

Actually, the Rush Park facility does not yet have video facilities, but the OCDE has agreed to pay the same third-party video crew used by the RCSD district.

According to public documents, the proposed budget 2021-22 budget for OCDE is listed as $309 million.

According to Williams, the OCDE educational community forums are special board meetings that were approved by the county board to be held July 27 and Aug. 4. 

He said there will be no regular business conducted and the meetings will “strictly be an educational forum composed of scholars from the academic and university level, as well as experts from the field of law.” 

Nevertheless, once the testimony began, community residents said they suspected there was a whole other reason why the forums were being held in Rossmoor, one said she did not “trust” the Orange County Board of Education and many worried that the forums will create the same type of danger that existed near the end of the LAUSD debate.

Ladelle Clark, said “this is the first time ever that the (Orange County Board of Education) has come to Rossmoor to educate us.”

She said LAUSD “has been trying to educate people for the last six months. The problem is,” she said, “people don’t want to be educated. They want to be supported in the views they hold and that’s what’s happening at this event.”

“And if this (RCSD) board endorses this meeting, you have passively given your support to that against our local school district. I have a feeling that the cake is baked, but hopefully, I’m wrong.”

Another Rossmoor resident, Maria Swanson, said “the reason people don’t like politicians is because politicians don’t seem to care about what is best for the community. And in this case, it’s very clear that keeping the community safe is in the best interest,” she said.

Rossmoor resident Josh Spiller was incredulous. “I have to be honest. This is downright ridiculous,” he said. “Why is it the responsibility of RCSD (to hold these forums)? … Rossmoor has no control over the LAUSD.”

“This meeting will drive in the extremes from both sides of politics, left and right, and this meeting is a higher level of risk than any other meeting proposed for our little auditorium here in the RCSD,” said Spiller.

David Sachs, a Rossmoor resident since 1975, said Los Alamitos Unified “provides an excellent education” and explained that ethnic studies “is already a done deal.” 

“I don’t see what authority any of you have to countermand that,” said Sachs, saying he thought education was indeed lacking inclusion relating to “the kind of people who came from so many different places to contribute to what this country has become.”

“I don’t see why students at the high school should be deprived of that element in the education of our history,” said Sachs.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that this meeting is going to attract very passionate people from both sides and violence is violence,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what they say … the safety of this community is of paramount importance,” said Scott Miller, a 33-year resident of Rossmoor.

“A park is a place where children should be playing,” he said. “Rejecting this meeting is an appropriate course for public safety,” he added.

Rossmoor resident Brenda Gorman said she thought “it was never the intention” of community facilities like Rush Park “to be part of a large controversial event” like the one the county board was planning. 

“This is not a meeting for Rossmoor,” she said.

Gorman suggested the event would threaten public safety and she asked if insurance would cover any damage to neighborhood homes or property, should it occur as a result of the meetings.

Conversely, there were others attending the hearing who expressed strong sentiment in support of the meeting, many of whom have been part of the ethnic studies opposition movement since it surfaced.

Harriett Reid of Long Beach said LAUSD had “failed to inform the community what Critical Race Theory is and what it means for their children. I think many have been deceived about the class and what it will entail.”

“They are not aware of the gender diversity, the gender spectrum and the different areas their children will be exposed to,” said Reid.

“A majority of parents were completely unaware of everything that was going on and I can’t think of a better place to have it (the meeting). I don’t know why people are afraid of information,” she said.

Robin Itzler, of Cypress, said she thought Rossmoor was a convenient location for the meeting, saying she wanted to hear the pros and cons of CRT.

“What’s better than hearing from a panel of experts,” Itzler suggested, turning to the audience saying, “nobody’s screaming, nobody’s fighting.” She asked RCSD to let the people listen then come to their own conclusions.

Maggie Marchese of Los Alamitos who said her first language is Spanish said she also supported the meeting, saying parents need to learn more about the social justice standards passed by LAUSD.

“Most parents do not understand what critical race theory is and how that is going to be incorporated through the social justice standards in K-12 in every subject,” said Marchese.

Rick Walter of Long Beach who acknowledged he attended the April 20 ethnic studies town hall said “we just think the public needs to know about what’s going on.” 

He suggested that one-third of students from LAUSD come from Long Beach so “please have the meetings here,” he said.

Staci Muller of Seal Beach who has children attending LAUSD, agreed.

“I think it is important to have this meeting,” she said, adding “we need an explanation for what this means for our students.” 

Marc Ang, a community organizer from Los Angeles, said there was no violence at the Los Al protest event and called the focus on emphasis on safety a bit “hyperbolic.” He said the proposed Orange County Board of Ed forum will only “enrich the community.” 

Director Jeffrey Rips, who would later clash with Barke over the political intent of the meeting, asked Orange County Sheriff’s Department Captain Gary Knutson why security was enhanced for the RCSD special meeting last week.

“Our role is to provide for the safety and security of the members of the public … to express their viewpoints in a safe manner as possible,” said Knutson. Rips implied if RCSD needed beefed up security just to hold a hearing on whether to have the meeting, that an actual meeting could be much different.

Security issues around the proposed July 27 meeting dominated a major portion of the discussion.

Residents repeatedly expressed concern, given the fact that near the end of the process, LAUSD had to switch to online meetings after the Los Alamitos Police Department expressed concern for being able to keep the peace.

Director Nathan Searles, appearing from Indiana on Zoom, point blank asked Williams the rationale of having the physical meeting in Rossmoor and not simply on Zoom, since it was reportedly aimed at the entire population of Orange County.

“To have a meeting on Zoom,” said Williams, somehow diminishes the “impact of the information that has to be given,” he said. He suggested Zoom hinders the “ability to transmit educational ideas.”

“In person meetings are far more effective,” Williams told Searles.

“At the special educational forums that you have held in the last five years, how many have resulted in physical altercations, Director Mark Nitikman asked Williams?

“As far as physical altercations or injuries, none that I’m aware of,” said Williams.

Following an exhaustive review of potential security arrangements, Capt. Knutson said the OC Sheriff’s Office had 3,000 personnel and, if necessary, even with mutual aid, could provide sufficient security for July 27.

He noted, however, that while there are no known credible threats, the meeting was still a month away and there are no 100 percent guarantees.

Barke then made the motion to have the July 27 forum in Rossmoor, “with a request, not a requirement” for the county board to seek a different venue for the Aug. 4 meeting.

In addition, the motion includes an agreement to have OCDE pay for all additional security costs, videotaping and other related expenses related to the forum. In addition, OCBE is required to indemnify and insure the event.

During the debate on the motion, Rips said “we are here to make a decision on whether an event should happen here or not.  Whatever side you’re on is not necessarily important to this decision.”

“We are here to serve the betterment of Rossmoor community and Rossmoor citizens. It doesn’t go further than that,” said Rips, “and that for me is what I am thinking about.”

“So many people in our community are concerned about having this event here that it is almost irresponsible for us not to respond.”

Rips said “the fact that we’re promoting that we’re having a news media event to me is telling the world to come here and be a part of whatever is going to happen…I think optics are important and what I’m seeing the (count board of education) bringing a topic here against our local education. That’s not a partnership and it doesn’t feel right,” said Rips.

“I’m just doing here what I think is right for our community,” he added.

Then, the debate turned dour and political.

Rips told Barke he had “taken our community (Rossmoor), which is supposed to be about parks and trees and roadways, a nonpolitical environment and you chose to use your position for something that’s political. That’s totally outside the bounds of what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

“It is a conflict and you’re living that conflict,” Rips told Barke.

“Director Rips, you are incorrect,” said Barke, “this has nothing to do with politics for me.”

When Rips tried to interject, Barke said “I didn’t interrupt you. I understand you’re making a comment and I’m just telling you (Rips) you’re incorrect,” said Barke.

“We have a pro-life church that rents this auditorium every week. And if there were pro-choice people that came out and made a lot of noise and were upset about us allowing such an organization to rent the space, we wouldn’t want to be influenced by that,” said Barke.

“So, my concern is that that group which is the loudest thinks that that’s going to have the most influence and that’s not correct and that’s not right,” said Barke.

“And this is a very simple issue in my mind,” continued Barke.

“It has nothing to do with CRT. It has nothing to do with ethnic studies. This is a public auditorium that anybody can rent. And we have a duly elected Board of Education that represents the wide geography of Orange County. There’s five members of this board, and they voted, the majority voted to allow this educational forum to go forward,” he said.

Barke told the board to refuse to rent the auditorium would set a bad precedent for Rossmoor Community Services District.

“And if we make a precedent to say no, then the next group that comes in is going to be coming before the board as well, because now we will have set the precedent that if you don’t like a group…just simply come to the board, appeal the general manager’s decision,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.

With that, Barke called the question. Barke, DeMarco and Nitikman voted to hold the meeting. Rips and Searles voted no.

The Orange County Board of Education’s community forum will be held July 27 at Rush Park auditorium and potentially again, Aug. 4.

Barke’s motion was amended to provide for a review of the potential August rental of the facility at the next meeting of the RCSD.