Tuesday, April 20, 2004

But will the school board comply with their newly written law?

Summary: Westminster school board's redefinition of gender skates by the California Department of Education on a technicality. The good news is that the school district doesn't lose funding. As for the bad news, the quote from Jack O'Connell, our state Superintendent says it best: "Our children deserve better".

The state Superintendent issued a strong warning to the school board that they need to heed state law (thanks to Jim Morey for forwarding a copy of the letter) :
    ...However, I must strongly caution the board regarding application of its newly adopted policy. The district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) policy now includes alleged discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation. Your attempt to redefine "gender," however, creates grave doubt as to the sincerity of the board's action and whether it intends to apply its policy in a manner consistent with state law.

    In fact, it appears the district may intend to deny protection from discrimination and harassment to a class of students that the law clearly protects.
    As a local board of education, you lack authority to defy state law by adopting your own definition of gender based on your own personal prejudices. The Legislature has clearly spoken on the issue, and under California law the district is the agent of the state for purposes of carrying out state policy. The fact that the district objects to the language of a regulation, as opposed to the language of the statute itself, is of no weight whatsoever. The Legislature, at Education Code section 221.1, specifically directed the adoption of regulations to implement its prohibition of discrimination and harassment. Implementing regulations, including those defining gender, were adopted according to the procedure provided by law.Those procedures gave the district, and any other member of the public, an opportunity and avenue for participation in their development and adoption. Those procedures further provide a legal avenue for challenging in court any regulation that one considers invalid.

    Accordingly, whatever the board's objective or motivation in adopting its own policy pronouncement on gender, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is of no legal effect or authority. The board remains obligated to follow the law as declared by state statute and regulation. If you choose to adopt a discriminatory policy or fail to resolve a complaint of alleged discrimination on any basis, including sex, sexual orientation, or gender consistent with the provisions of state law, my department will pursue all legal means available to stop such action. My expectation is that you will not choose a path that would require us to further act against you.
    In summary, I want to again express my disappointment that those who took an oath to educate children would abuse their elected positions and attempt to flout the law. The public should reasonably expect their elected officials to safeguard their children, not seek to remove protection from them. The board's attempt to willingly disobey the law rather than use the available democratic process to seek change puts at risk the children its members swore to protect. This sets a destructive example for our children and is contrary to the democratic values of our society. Our children deserve better.
Short analysis: The school board's actions placed the Department of Education (CDE) in a bind: if they had rejected the redefinition, the school district would lose a huge chunk of their funding, $8 million dollars worth. Now that the CDE approved the school board proposal, this raises a lot of issues, including whether this weakens the state anti-discrimination law, will the school board actually comply with the legislation, and what happens if they don't.

Given enlightening comments like these by one of the school trustees, I wonder (pardon: expect link-rot in a week):
    Ahrens said the district would follow the law — though she declined to say how the district would respond to a complaint by a transsexual or anyone else who believed they were discriminated against because they do not fulfill traditional gender roles.

    "We're going to treat everyone decently," Ahrens said. "People are allowed to do whatever they want on their own time, but on the job, if you fall out of line, then that's a problem."
This sounds like a threat to me. Against adults, which was not a stated issue during this whole thing.

I'm not quite sure what she means by falling "out of line" and "a problem". I'm concerned the trustees' actions placed the kids' funding in jeopardy, in essence playing a game of high-stakes chicken with the state. I wonder how the presence of a conservative Republican governor factored in the school board's actions.

In the meantime, the community continues their recall drive of the two trustees who are up for re-election. The state senator will continue to pursue legislation to take over the school district. If morality is the issue, certainly the trustees are not complying with the spirit of the Brown Act, which states this:
    California Government Code Sections 54950 et seq.
    Declaration of Legislative Intent
    54950. In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.
    The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.