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Rossmoor residents debate ethnic studies forums coming to their town

Rossmoor officials got a small taste this week of the controversy that’s coming to town over ethnic studies.

Fifteen residents split nearly evenly Tuesday night on whether they want the Orange County Board of Education to hold town halls on the controversial educational topic in a community auditorium.

After listening to comments, Rossmoor Community Services District board member Jeffrey Rips asked whether his board has the authority to approve or deny an organization’s request to use a community facility.

The Rossmoor board can weigh in, replied General Manager Joe Mendoza, if a resident pays $50 to appeal a permit such as the one the Board of Education requested to hold town halls at Rush Park auditorium this summer.

Rossmoor board member Tony DeMarco, noting an appeal is likely, tried to place the issue on their next meeting’s agenda. Rips agreed.

But Rossmoor board president Jeff Barke, who is married to Orange County Board of Education member Mari Barke, opposed that move. He noted the permit hasn’t even been granted yet and there’s no appeal to consider.

Meanwhile, the general manager said he too has the authority to deny a permit but he’s not inclined to do that.

“This is more of an informative forum,” Mendoza told Rossmoor board members.

Orange County Board of Education President Ken Williams, invited by Jeff Barke to kick off Tuesday night’s discussion, echoed that. Williams has previously called ethnic studies a “terrible” curriculum and the forum is expected to weigh heavily against it.

Mendoza said he did not believe the town halls scheduled for July 27 and Aug. 24 will bring a large contentious crowd because, unlike recent Los Alamitos Unified meetings, there is nothing to decide during the county town halls.

“There’s nothing to contend. It’s just information,” he said.

A Los Alamitos school board meeting May 11 was moved online at the recommendation of local police, who feared potential violence from people opposed to a social justice curriculum. Even then, some 100 people gathered outside the district’s office. They included members of the far-right Proud Boys group, which was involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The five elected members of the Orange County Board of Education, unlike other school boards across the county, doesn’t have the power to say what will be taught in local schools. Still, the conservative majority has repeatedly shared its viewpoints on topics like sex education, pandemic safety guidelines and now, ethnic studies.

Ethnic studies examines race and ethnicity but is viewed by conservatives as indoctrination of leftist ideas. Critical race theory, a curriculum typically associated with universities that examines systemic and institutional racism, also has been attacked by the right as divisive and even destructive. Opponents say the two are linked and teachers are introducing both concepts to students, although many educators – including Los Alamitos Unified superintendent Andrew Pulver – say that’s not the case.

Mari Barke, in an interview earlier this week, said she suggested Rossmoor’s Rush Park because she’s familiar with it, it’s close to freeways and offers a larger auditorium than the Department of Education’s boardroom in Costa Mesa, which can accommodate up to 180 residents. The auditorium in Rush Park can seat as many as 575, Mendoza said.

During the Rossmoor meeting Tuesday night, most who spoke in favor of the forums said they see it as an opportunity to learn more about the teachings. Some also accused Los Alamitos Unified of pushing through a social justice curriculum last month.

“If the school board had acted in a more responsible manner and given the community a little more time to do some research and fully understand what was happening … maybe we wouldn’t be having these meetings,” former Los Alamitos council member Gerry Mejia told Rossmoor officials.

Opponents said they fear the forums will lead to violent exchanges between supporters and opponents, along with traffic and parking congestion during street construction in the neighborhood. They also questioned why a meeting that’s supposed to draw people from across Orange County is being held in a small unincorporated pocket of the county, far from central locations.

“Why Rossmoor?” asked resident Scott Miller. “If the Board of Education is going to hold a meeting for all Orange County parents, why are they locating it in the far northwest corner of Orange County?”

Board of Ed members allocated $7,500 to pay for the forums. The tab will include flying in some of the invited experts and paying for security. The estimated cost of a deputy is $130 per hour, Sgt. Todd Hylton wrote in an email.

“OCSD is dedicated to providing a safe environment for people to express their opinions in a lawful manner while protecting lives and property,” Hylton wrote.

Mendoza said he is following the guidance of the Sheriff’s Department.  On Wednesday, he said he was pleased with how residents engaged during the Tuesday night meeting and expects the forums to go smoothly. Meanwhile, he’s in talks with Orange County Board members and the Sheriff’s Department on the events’ timing and crowds. The permits are currently requested for 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., with a press conference scheduled early in the afternoon and the town halls starting at 6 p.m.


Source: Orange County Register

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