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2 Orange school board conservatives ousted by recalls with LGBTQ+ policies at the center

ORANGE, CA - JANUARY 19, 2023: Board President Rick Ledesma listens as concerned parents voice their opposition to the abrupt firing of Supt. Gunn Marie Hansen at the Orange Unified School District Board of Education meeting on January 19, 2023 in Orange, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Orange Unified school board member Rick Ledesma indicated this week that he expected to lose his seat after recall election. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Voters in the city of Orange appear to have ousted two conservative school board members who had spearheaded policies widely opposed by advocates for LGBTQ+ youth in a recall election viewed as a local bellwether for the culture wars in education.

The fiercely contested recall election in the Orange Unified School District intensified with the board majority's approval in the fall of a parent-notification policy requiring educators to inform parents when a student requests “to be identified as a gender other than that student’s biological sex or the gender listed on the birth certificate or any other official records.”

A legal battle over the issue is playing out as California Atty. General Rob Bonta pursues a court challenge of such policies enacted by a handful of conservative-leaning school boards. His lawsuit asserts that the rules put transgender and gender-nonconforming students in “danger of imminent, irreparable harm” by potentially forcibly “outing” them at home before they’re ready.

Supporters of the policy are gathering signatures across California in a petition drive with the hope of putting parent notification on the November statewide ballot.

The two Orange Unified board members — Rick Ledesma and Madison Miner — gave farewell remarks on Monday at what was likely their last board meeting. It will be up to the remaining five board members to either appoint replacements pending the next regular election or opt for a speedier special election.

The recall came to be an early litmus test on the resonance with voters of issues that have roiled school boards throughout the nation: the teaching of racism and Black history, the rights of LGBTQ+ youth versus the rights of their parents, restrictions on LGBTQ+ symbols and related curriculum, and the removal of library books with sexual content — especially LGBTQ+ content — from school libraries.

In such education tilts, Ledesma, a veteran school board member, and Miner, a newcomer, were warriors who took high-profile, aggressively conservative stands in front of cheering audiences of the like-minded. Their supporters included some district parents, but many attending the board's most raucous meeting in September were religious conservatives without children in public schools, including some from well outside the community.

There was always uncertainty about the extent to which this cheering section represented a majority of parents and educators in a diverse school system of about 25,000 students.

Read more: How conservatives are waging a coordinated, anti-LGBTQ+ culture war in California schools

"We did this recall knowing everyone was watching," said parent Darshan Smaaladen, a leader of the recall effort. "These school board takeovers are part of a national trend. ... But for us it wasn’t about politics. It was about taking politics and personal agendas out of the school board and making students the first priority."

The margin in the results was hardly a landslide, but by the end of the week there was little doubt that the recall had succeeded.

The tallies for removing both Ledesma and Miner were similar: 53.7% choosing to recall Ledesma; 53.4% to recall Miner. At this point in the count, each candidate would have to make up nearly 4,000 votes to keep their seats.

As of Friday morning, only about 19,000 ballots remained to be processed across the entirety of Orange County from the March 6 election. The Orange Unified School District is one of 28 schools systems in the county, and the district itself is divided into seven trustee areas.

The math was plain enough to Ledesma and Miner.

Monday night, in what she anticipated to be her final board meeting, Miner first used her platform to list recent school visits, noting that the elementary students were "polite and respectful."

"And then I just wanted to say a smooth transition of power is a part of democracy," Miner continued. "And while those efforts have been hindered over the last year, I, as a board trustee, will not contribute to that destruction. It has been an honor to serve this community, and I will continue to do so as I was prior to this election."

Orange Unified school board member Madison Miner
Orange Unified school board member Madison Miner is admitting defeat in a recall election. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Ledesma, who during the campaign had noted the significant role that the teachers union played in the recall effort, also chose to exit without expressing rancor.

"No matter what happens at the board level, this is just a wonderful community," he said. "I know I will take great pride in driving around the district and seeing the many, many improvements over my time on this board that have happened with other boards. And I will remember those memories fondly."

At a board meeting prior to the election, Ledesma asserted that voters were not getting factual information about his record, including allegations that he was financially irresponsible, which he vehemently denied.

Read more: Orange Unified board approves parental notification when a student identifies as transgender

Ledesma and Miner reached their culture war apex last September, when a narrow majority passed parent-notification rules, which critics had dubbed a "forced outing" policy, leading to competing face-to-face rallies outside the meeting room and shouting matches both inside and out, with police barely keeping the two sides apart.

The 4-0 vote was cast at about 11:30 p.m., after the three board members who opposed the measure walked out. Their exit followed a disruption by members of the Revolutionary Communist Party — which opposed the policy — one of whom shouted into a megaphone.

The meeting then devolved into a shouting match between opposing sides and a brief scuffle. At this point, most of the yelling came from resolution supporters, including key leaders from outside the district.

The board members who walked out later issued a statement saying they left because of safety concerns.

Board member Kris Erickson, one of those who walked out, sounded relieved by the results of the recall.

"The past 14 months have been extremely challenging and chaotic," said Erickson. "Rather than engaging in civil and thorough policy discussions about issues that profoundly affect our students, families and district, it has been a year of dramatic gestures and political theater. ... It has been disappointing and frustrating to see our OUSD parents and teachers be demonized, ridiculed and, ultimately, ignored. I look forward to improving transparency, civility and fiscal responsibility."

The parental notification policy was similar to those passed by governing boards in Chino, Murrieta and Temecula, as well as the Anderson Union High School District in Shasta County and the Rocklin school district, northwest of Sacramento.

It calls for alerting parents of “any request by the student to use a name that differs from their legal name” — other than a common nickname derived from their legal name — “or to use pronouns” that differ from those aligned with official records.

The notification requirement also covers attempts by a student to take part in athletic activities or use facilities such as a bathroom when that action doesn't align with the student’s birth-certificate gender.

Ledesma, who was board president at the time, characterized the resolution as a moral imperative.

“Parents decide to conceive a child," he said at the time. "Then the mother carries the child for nine months — we all know this — only to send their child eventually to school and [for the child] to be told to keep a secret, and because supposedly it comes down from the state.

“So my concern there is this child keeping a secret and, you know, potentially there’s lies being said, and this child is 12 years old ... [and] is ready to change their lives forever.”

Ledesma was a longtime member of the school board; Miner became a key addition in 2022, bringing strategic assertiveness and an important vote to a burgeoning, religiously conservative governing philosophy.

But the board's initial action that seeded the recall was motivated by internal politics.

"The recall began prior to the culture-war issues being brought in by the board majority," Smaaladen said. "Our recall started when they fired our superintendent."

In January 2023, the conservative majority unexpectedly fired Supt. Gunn Marie Hansen with no explanation after a closed-door meeting.

Before passing the parent-notification policy, the board had taken earlier, but largely symbolic actions on other controversial issues, Smaaladen said.

They passed a parents bill of rights, but it essentially codified "rights we already had," Smaaladen said. The board also enacted a flag ban, which has been used elsewhere to target all Pride flags celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.

"The flag ban was for only the front of the schools where we had only flown California and U.S. flags," Smaaladen said. "We still have any flag we want inside our classrooms."

But with parent notification, the board majority ventured into its most divisive issue, one that critics said would harm students and supporters said could save them.

Other issues also were in the mix. Ledesma and Miner were strong supporters of charter schools, which are privately managed and mostly nonunion. Critics accused the board majority of making a sweetheart deal to provide control of a district campus to a politically influential charter school. Its backers included major political donors for Ledesma and Miner — issues laid out in an article in the Voice of Orange County. Board members denied any wrongdoing.

On Friday, Miner signaled she intends to remain in the fray.

"As a mother of four, I will continue to fight to improve educational outcomes for our children in whatever capacity I can," she told The Times. "Unions and bureaucrats have failed our kids for far too long in California to simply roll over and give up."

Opponents of the recall included conservative religious leaders and their congregants from inside and well beyond the community, as well as local charter school supporters and Republican officials.

Read more: Righteous mother or right-wing zealot? The soccer mom leading California's parental rights movement

Republican strategists have talked of using parent notification as a wedge to drive parents into their political tent. Education issues played well for conservatives in Virginia, where a Republican was elected governor.

The effect in California — other than in areas of the state that are already heavily conservative — remains to be seen. Parent notification could strike many moderates as reasonable — although some of its most fervent champions are not moderates.

In rallies for parent notification and other culture war priorities, speakers have at times periodically characterized public schools as havens for molesters and for educators who want to groom students into what the speakers describe as deviant and unholy lifestyles. From their perspective, parents must be notified and activated to prevent the damage that a "woke" school establishment would otherwise bring upon their children.

But Ledesma did not go there in his farewell remarks, choosing instead to praise Orange Unified as a place where the educators were the best of the best, sounding, for a moment, very much like Smaaladen.

She said the recall brought together "parents who are willing to give any and all spare time ... because of how well our school district has served our students."

"This is especially true for me," Smaaladen added. "I have a special education student and she is about to enter the adult world fully prepared, with positive self-value, and ready for college. That wouldn’t be possible without the amazing staff in our district. So we fought for them."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.