This week, voters cast ballots in the recall election against California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Board members Megan Cutuli, Scott Fayette, and Chris Forehan could be served with a notice of an intention to gather signatures to launch a recall as early as this month, according to the self-described face of the effort, Robert Aguilar, Jr. He’s a parent in the district who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2016 but said he will not run again.
The goal is to get the recall on the November 2022 midterm ballot.
“We’re not being vindictive,” Aguilar said in a recent interview. “We just need somebody to do something for our kids and this is the only way legally we know to do that.”
Several steps must be taken before Los Al Unified voters would even see a recall ballot. That includes the collection of a total of roughly 6,000 verified signatures from registered voters across the three targeted trustee areas in the district. The signatures must be gathered within 90 days of recall petition notices being served to board members, according to a handbook from the Orange County Registrar of Voters office.
If it makes it to the ballot, the Los Alamitos Unified School District would have to pay for the election, according to the Registrar’s office. The bill would be sent to Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver.
Aguilar said he is supported by a dozen or so mostly conservative groups and parents throughout the Seal Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos community. Fueling them are topics that have stirred up passionate public comments from opponents and supporters at board meetings for the past year.
That includes the board’s enforcement of California’s indoor mask mandate for students at TK-12 schools, the district’s adoption of an ethnic studies elective at the request of students at Los Alamitos High School, and the approval of social justice standards meant to help staff address incidents of intolerance on its nine campuses.
The president of the West Orange County Republican Women Federated is one of the recall backers. In an interview on Monday, Nancy Hathcock said, “We will support the efforts to recall the Los Alamitos School Board.”
Aguilar said he’s confident they can trigger a recall. “We have the support and several thousand signatures confirmed,” he said.
Originally, Board President Marlys Davidson and Vice President Diana Hill were to be included in the recall. But both are up for re-election in 2022 and election rules state an officer whose term ends within six months cannot be recalled.
In a statement, Board President Davidson said she was frustrated by the possibility of a recall but said the district’s focus continues to be on students. She cited the district’s recent hiring of more staff to support students’ mental health and the opening of WellSpaces on secondary campuses.
“Along with Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver and his team, this Board is committed to our children, schools, staff and community. The recall effort will not divert our attention from the important work ahead,” Davidson wrote.
In an interview on Monday, Vice President Hill said she believes in the democratic process and the right for people to pursue a recall, but said it’s a little confusing to her that this would happen.
“I don’t feel like we have been negligent in our duty and our responsibility and, in fact, it’s the opposite. I think that this board has been true to putting students first and listening to all aspects of issues from the community and then finding that central lane,” she said. “I believe that this is a really well-balanced, well-intended, and well-meaning board. Nobody on the board has a political agenda. Our agenda is the students and staff of Los Al and how we can best serve them.”
Board members being targeted in the recall pointed to the work they’ve done since winning their seats in 2020. That includes being one of the first public school districts in Orange County to offer students in-person instruction during the pandemic.
“I’m very proud of the work that our school board has done during these trying times,” Scott Fayette, who represents Trustee Area 4, said in an interview on Monday. “That includes being able to bring back our students for in-person instruction as much as the safety and the regulations have allowed. The work of our district is to provide an inclusive, safe and welcoming environment for all.”
“Now is the time to focus on supporting our students and staff,” Megan Cutuli, the longest-serving current board member who represents Trustee Area 5, wrote in a statement. “That is where my energies are. I am committed to supporting the students, staff and community.”
“We are committed to providing our students the support they need at this time to continue to be academically successful,” Chris Forehan wrote in a statement. He represents Trustee Area 2. “As I have done throughout my career in education…Kids come first and will remain my focus.”
Mask Mandate is ‘the immediate threat’
Aguilar’s top issue is electing board members who can make masks optional for students. “We do believe that the immediate threat is the mask mandates,” Aguilar said. He says the district and board have been “sitting on their hands” and could do more. Some parents at the August 17 board meeting expressed similar concerns.
Universal indoor masking at schools is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics as an important measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms and ensure full-time in-person instruction is possible at schools.
At their meeting in July, board members and Dr. Pulver publicly expressed disappointment and frustration about the mask mandate and spoke at length about what, if any, options they had to give parents.
“Just because you adhere to a law doesn’t mean you agree with it or that you think it’s what is best,” Hill said recently and shared that she had written a letter to Governor Newsom stating pandemic-related mandates were eroding local control. But Hill noted if the board made masks optional, “Then we as a district would be breaking the law.”
The Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County Health Care Agency warned districts they must follow the mandate. In a letter, California’s top public health official outlined potential legal and financial consequences for schools that do not enforce the mask mandate.
Aguilar called these “vague threats.”
One San Diego County school district said it would make masks optional only to backtrack days later. A legal effort to overturn the mask mandate by the Orange County Board of Education was denied by the California Supreme Court.
The California Department of Public Health said it would decide if the mask mandate should be updated no later than Nov. 1.
Hathcock of the Republican women’s group cites the adoption of an ethnic studies elective at Los Alamitos High School as her reason to back a recall.
Students publicly asked the board for the course, arguing for the need to bring the missing perspectives of the district’s diversifying student body into the classroom.
Hathcock says it amounts to “critical race theory,” a college-level academic discipline looking at how laws and policies limit the opportunities for marginalized groups in the U.S. Opponents say critical race theory teaches students that America is based on white supremacy and that white people are racists.
Los Al Unified officials have repeatedly said critical race theory is not part of any of its efforts.
At the June 1 virtual meeting when the board unanimously adopted the ethnic studies coursework (it was moved online to due safety concerns), public commenters warned: “If you do proceed with this we will do everything possible to stop this. You will be voted out of your positions never to be in office again.”
LAUSD parent Steve Miller, a vocal supporter of ethnic studies and the district’s pandemic response, is already texting people to not sign a recall petition.
“While I may not agree with all the board’s decisions, personally, I’m thankful we have a non-partisan board who listens to experts,” he said. “This recall effort is an extremely partisan attempt to deny science and ignore history. I’m extremely confident it will fail.”
Other parents see the recall as a chance to get involved. LAUSD parent David Ryst has been vocal about his concerns with the district’s approval of social justice standards and feels his voice was not heard.
“I am willing to run because it’s obvious the current board is too far removed from the reality of what children and teachers in all grade levels are dealing with,” he wrote in a text message.
The board had a lengthy discussion on the social justice standards, even changing some of the language, when they were adopted in May.
Staci Muller pulled her two children out of Los Al schools this year over her concerns about what she says is being taught on campuses. She’s supporting the recall and even considering running herself.
“Parents of students, we need to step up and get involved! A more balanced board capable of critical thinking, instead of a far-left board, like LAUSD is now, would help in order to check one another along the way,” Muller wrote in a text message.
For Aguilar, there is another goal of the recall.
“We want to re-staff the superintendent’s office,” Aguilar said and added, “I like Dr. Pulver. I believe he has a heart for our kids but we just can’t have non-action on these issues.”
The recall effort against the LAUSD Board is not unique. There are more than a dozen current efforts to recall school board members across California, according to Ballotpedia. Right now, signatures are being gathered in an effort to oust three board members in the Tustin Unified School District.
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