By Jeannette Andruss
A recall drive against three trustees on the Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education has officially launched as has a vocal group’s effort to stop it.
Board members Megan Cutuli, Chris Forehan and Scott Fayette were given the notices of intention to gather signatures for a recall during the Sept. 28 board meeting.
It happened in front of an overflow crowd that included students, teachers, parents, community members and political activists of various viewpoints.
People for, and against, the recall got up out of their seats and waved signs after recall campaign spokesman Robert Aguilar, Jr. presented envelopes containing the notices for the trustees during the public comment period.
“Parents are not willing to wait until November 2024 to vote out the entire school board,” Aguilar said. “So the recall is necessary to allow changes to be made sooner, for the benefit and safety of our children and their families,” he added.
Aguilar is a parent in the district. He ran for school board in 2016 but says he will not run again.
It’s been less than one year since Forehan and Fayette first gained their seats and Cutuli won re-election. Board President Marlys Davidson and Vice President Diana Hill are up for re-election in 2022.
Recall organizers say the goal is to get the recall on that same November midterm ballot.
Timeline for Recall Effort
A lot has to happen before the recall is on the 2022 ballot. First, the three trustees had until this week to file an official response with the Orange County Registrar of Voters that has to be fewer than 200 words. All three said they planned to do so.
Their responses will appear on the petition where voters will be asked to sign in support of a recall election, the Registrar’s office confirmed. Also, included on the petition, the proponents’ reasons to recall.
The clock starts ticking for signature gathering as soon as the petition is officially certified by the Registrar’s office. Once the petition is certified, recall supporters will then have 90 days to collect the roughly 6,000 signatures from registered voters needed to qualify for the ballot. That’s roughly 2,000 signatures from each of the targeted trustee areas which are 2, 4 and 5.
The pro-recall website and speakers at the meeting cited the enforcement of California’s COVID-19 protocols like a universal indoor mask mandate at schools, the district’s adoption of an ethnic studies elective and examples of efforts related to LGBTQ+ students among the complaints.
“The grounds they mentioned are incorrect,” board member Cutuli said of the recall notice in an email last week. She added that Los Al Unified was the first public school district in Orange County to get kids back to in-person learning during COVID-19 while following California’s guidelines.
“What I would like the public to know is that this board has always worked to support our students and staff. Every decision made is based on what is best for our students. … But what is at stake here is the education of our children,” Cutuli wrote.
“The cost of the election will be paid for by the district and it will affect our students. This group wants to take over the school board and make sweeping changes and replace personnel. One of the things I have been most proud of in Los Alamitos USD is our constant striving to be better at everything we do. This is not the way to better serve our students and community,” she added.
Board member Forehan said he was committed to serving his district. “As the elected Trustee for Trustee Area #2, I will continue to do what is best for kids,” he wrote in an email.
“As long as I remain the elected trustee, I will continue to listen to the voices of our students, staff and community when making decisions that affect building our school district where compassion, respect and acceptance for others is valued by all. Student and staff safety will remain a priority as well.”
Trustee Fayette, who represents Area 4, wrote about the board’s increasing mental health staffing to support students and staff and “additional tutoring programs and staff tutoring hours to support students academically.”
Most speakers, including students, critical of Recall
“We’re taking this very seriously,” said recall opponent and former Los Al Unified trustee Del Clark before last Tuesday’s meeting. She was part of a group, some affiliated with the Democratic Club of Seal Beach, at a table set up outside the board meeting room. They had flyers directing people to their website, www.supportlausd.com to counter the pro-recall site, losalrecall.com.
“We are not going to let this [recall] happen,” said Clark.
Clark was one of many speakers during the more than hour-long public comment period at the meeting. While some people whose name was called to speak did not appear at the podium, the majority of speakers were against the recall and were supportive of the board.
Many speakers thanked the district for following the state COVID-19 protocols. They called the recall a “farce” and “a shot in the dark.”
“This board has done right by us. It’s time for us to do right by them. Don’t sign the recall petitions. Support our school board,” parent Emily Hogenboom said.
“Those that are leading the recall, want to take us, take our students backwards. With test rankings of 10 out of 10, putting Los Al in the top 5% of public schools, I believe the district is doing their job to educate our children,” said Nina Betonte, a parent in the district.
Parent Leland Jay expressed concerns that a recall would divide the community. “Please, before you sign this recall petition, … please ask yourself, is it worth it?” he said in an appeal to people watching the meeting on YouTube.
“If you love this place as I do, we have a shared appreciation for all that is good about living here. Is it worth doing this to our community? And my sincere hope is that your answer is no.”
Seven people, including Aguilar, spoke in favor of the recall.
That included Dorothy Ferrell who said she was previously pleased with her two kids’ experience in the district but not anymore.
“I’m not happy with the forced indoctrination of gender fluidity that’s happening at the middle school right now with my daughter. She has come home, almost speechless, a couple of times,” Ferrell said.
She and some speakers also mentioned the ethnic studies elective adopted in response to requests from high school students. Recall backers said it amounted to critical race theory, a college-level academic discipline that looks at how laws impact opportunities for people of color.
The district has repeatedly said its efforts are not based on critical race theory including in a FAQ issued in April that read, “There have been numerous unfounded claims by outside special interest groups that this controversial theory is the foundation of our course.”
In his comments supporting the recall, parent Paul Fabre dismissed the district’s explanations. “The bottom line is … that there’s teaching that skin color matters, skin color does not matter. It shouldn’t matter,” he said.
Students defend teacher
At least seven district students spoke at the meeting and criticized the pro-recall website’s characterization of an Oak Middle School teacher. The website claims the teacher asked kids about their sexuality during the first day of school. The students called the website’s claims “lies” and “slander” and praised the teacher for what they said were ongoing efforts to make all students feel welcome.
At the meeting, an Oak student said the teacher had a poster in the classroom saying it was a safe space for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. The student said the teacher had a survey which included questions about a preferred name and pronoun.
“The preferred name is just in case one of us would like to go by a nickname or a different name and pronouns are simply what you would like people to refer to you as,” the student told board members.
“The preferred name has nothing to do with convincing someone to be transgender and change their name and the pronouns don’t have anything to do with convincing the person to be gay. This made a lot of people feel safe at school and be happy to come and have a safe place where they’re accepted,” the student added.
In a phone interview this week, an Oak Middle School parent explained the poster and survey made their child feel uncomfortable. The student came home asking questions about sexual orientation and that infuriated the parent. The student was one of two moved out of the class by parent request, according to the district.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to introduce that to kids. It’s pushing the kids to agree with thoughts of gender diversity,” said the parent who did not want to be identified.
After public comment concluded at the meeting, Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver clarified that it was not an individual teacher being targeted in a recall as one speaker suggested. Pulver also criticized the pro-recall website’s depiction of district teachers. He said the website contained “gross inaccuracies” including the false claim that a district teacher was under investigation by the Los Alamitos Police Department.
Last month, Los Al PD confirmed to the Event-News Enterprise that the teacher was not under investigation, that no crime was committed and that the caller complaining about a teacher asking students about preferred pronouns was referred back to the school.
The reference to the police investigation has since been taken off the recall site. The names of two teachers were also removed.
“We realized we didn’t want [the teacher] to be the target,” Aguilar explained in an interview last week. “We’re focused on the board and their inaction.”
‘Ask questions,’ trustees urge
At the close of Tuesday’s board meeting, trustees shared their thoughts.
Vice President Hill praised her fellow board members who had been served with recall notices. She said the board is nonpartisan and does its best to meet the needs of every student in the district.
She brought up the example of the response to California’s mask mandate for schools.
“This board sat here at this dais and asked just question after question about, how can we support both parts of our community? Some who want and insist their kids need masks … some that don’t. How can we balance this? How can we balance the whole child?” Hill explained. She said that because it’s a California mandate, “in some ways, our hands are tied.”
She encouraged the public to do research and to reach out and ask questions.
Board President Davidson made a similar appeal. “I want to challenge our community to not assume labels and soundbites are true. Ask questions. …Listen to our answers with an open mind and then feel free to ask more questions. Get to know us.”
She also praised her colleagues facing a recall effort and expressed frustration at the situation.
“The school district will have to pay for the cost of this recall. That is money out of classrooms meant for our children,” she said. “So rather than listening to inflammatory rhetoric and falsehoods from a small but vocal group, let’s find a way to engage in meaningful conversation.”
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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the version that appeared in print to include the names of the public speakers and other minor edits.