California school officials use Trump to mask their own failures

In announcing the end of the DACA program two weeks ago, President Trump seemed to fulfill a campaign promise to kill a program he once declared unconstitutional. But later, the president seemed to call for a permanent legislative solution that would grant resident status to people brought illegally to the country as minors. Tweeting that same day, the president said, “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”

The nuance – the back-and-forth – was lost on many Obama-haters who celebrated the president. But it was also lost on Trump-haters, including public education officials and union leaders in California. They’ve used President Trump’s non-decision as an opportunity to rally their faithful by terrorizing undocumented families in the state.

California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson denounced the president’s message as a “mean-spirited, political attack on students who are working hard to succeed.” Randall Booker, superintendent of Piedmont Unified in the Bay Area, said the president had launched a “direct attack on California families and their children.” In a letter to the California congressional delegation, University of California President Janet Napolitano called the president’s non-decision “callous and misguided” and said it “unnecessarily punishes hundreds of thousands of bright young people.”

Within a week of the announcement, closer to home, the board of the Santa Ana Unified School District voted to condemn the president’s move – or rather “non-move,” if you like. The resolution claimed “great uncertainty exists amongst students about what specific immigration policies will be pursued by the federal government, and immigrants and other populations within the SAUSD community are fearful of policies that may result in deportation or forced registration based on immigration status, religion or beliefs.”

I was the sole vote against the resolution, in part because we already passed a resolution in December 2016 asking Congress to act on immigration reform. But I was especially opposed to the resolution because the “uncertainty” it highlights has been caused by the very people behind this and similar resolutions. They are certainly the cause – and, if you believe them, the cure – of communal anxiety.

But I also voted against the resolution because I see it for what it really is: a tactic to transform Washington politics into local anxiety. Panic is useful for teacher’s union leaders and school officials who hope to distract us from the real issue: their failure to educate out students.

Their failure is documented in state tests that show a majority of our school children cannot read or perform math at grade level. Despite that undeniable evidence, SAUSD graduates these students from high school even though they’re unprepared for college or career. That’s a fraud.

Instead of correcting this social injustice, my fellow board members voted last week to condemn the president. That same night, teachers union leaders took their three minutes at the public-comments dais to condemn me for documenting the catastrophic, decades-long slide in student performance.

There is a crisis haunting our community. But it’s not a crisis the president caused. It’s not a crisis emanating from distant Washington, DC. Indeed, in the last several days, the president has begun talking with congressional Democrats about a deal that would permanently resolve the problem of people covered by the DACA program.

No, the crisis that should concern everyone has its origin right here in Santa Ana, California. It has been created by teacher’s union leaders, their allies and school officials who fail to educate generations of our children – and who attempt to distract us by sowing terror.

Under the law, all children, including immigrant children, have the right to a quality public education. Any other conversation is at best a sideshow meant to keep our community down.

This commentary appeared first in the Orange County Register. Cecilia Iglesias is a Santa Ana Unified school board trustee, president of the Parent Union, and director of community relations and education at the California Policy Center in Tustin. Researcher Stuart Clay contributed to this commentary.



Santa Ana Unified School District turns poor kids’ meal fund into cash cow

Unmistakable signs of trouble existed in Santa Ana Unified School District’s food-service program long before they were cited.

According to the state Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, district officials had been warned – in writing and in person. The warnings were simply ignored, and had been for years.

Now, SAUSD has been ordered to repay the state $2.7 million that it illegally debited from its student meal program.

Santa Ana is California’s sixth-largest school district and Orange County’s largest. More than 80 percent of its students qualify for federal meal subsidies. The money is intended to pay for food and salaries of food-service workers and custodians. Santa Ana received $24.9 million in the 2010-11. State subsidies accounted for another $2.1 million.

But rather than vigilant oversight of these funds, both elected and hired adults in charge seemed content to ignore the rules.

It took a whistle-blower to stop the abuse. Jan Monforte, a former SAUSD food services director who reported the district’s conduct to state officials, told the Register that her department was treated like a “cash cow.” Funds were routinely siphoned for other uses, including a $300,000 roof replacement project.

The children were fed, but they were fed cheaper, unhealthier processed foods rather than healthier fresh foods. Thus, the district diverted the savings to other uses – including feeding elected school board members and district officials at meetings.

Two years earlier, the previous food-service director was terminated for allowing what an arbitrator called “a hostile work environment” to exist in the district’s central kitchen. Sexual horseplay seemed to be a regular occurrence.

Ah, the mice played while the cat was away. But there were also plenty of real mice. County health inspectors cited the district 22 times in a four-year period for cockroaches and rodents at 15 campuses and the central kitchen. Old-fashioned mouse traps were openly displayed in the kitchen, leading Monforte to testify “when you get to the point where you have to do that, things have gone out of control.”

Not surprisingly, Santa Ana officials have contested the report’s accuracy and repaying at least $2.4 million. Even as they have made adjustments based on the state’s findings, they defend their actions citing an “absence of guidance” from the state on accounting methods and differences of “interpretation.”

Really? What part of “the district would have never received the money if it were not intended to feed poor children” do they not understand? Even if they failed to understand the legal issues, they should have understood the moral ones.

Santa Ana was not the only cited district. The report documented eight districts illegally debiting a combined $170 million from their student meal programs.

Kudos to the state Senate for investigating and making the report public. It underscores the Legislature’s less-understood, but critical, role of oversight, not just lawmaking. Important policy implications raised by the report warrant further legislative attention: state inspections of district food facilities are prearranged and collaborative with the district; the most serious offenses have been triggered by whistle-blowers. And officials only sporadically review financial records. These things need to change.

Finally, no school official in California has ever been prosecuted for intentionally diverting meal funds. Time to end that.

Gloria Romero is an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. This post originally appeared as a guest editorial in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.