Lopez Recall Is Not Justified
February 2, 2003
Editorial, LA Times

In six years on the Santa Ana school board, Nativo V. Lopez has given the public ample reason to wonder whether he's the man for the job. That's a question the voters should answer in two years, when Lopez's current term expires.

We wouldn't endorse him for re-election, but the recall campaign is another matter. We recommend a "no" vote in Tuesday's recall election.

Lopez's critics have no solid evidence that he committed misdeeds serious enough be pulled from office midterm. They are fuzzy on why they want Lopez out now.

He supports bilingual education. His outspoken Latino activism makes him a divisive and sometimes abrasive voice on the board. True and true. But these come as no surprise. Lopez always has been an unquestioning defender of bilingual education and a strident fighter for Latino empowerment. Voters knew it when they reelected him two years ago. Presumably they liked his message. So why the sudden political attack?

This campaign seems timed to the school board's decision to put an elementary school on nine vacant acres in Floral Park. Residents of the picturesque and well-off neighborhood oppose the school, arguing that schools should be built where they're needed -- in poorer, denser areas of the city. Those words smack of a different message: Keep the school buses and poor immigrant kids out of our neighborhood.

Santa Ana, one of the state's most crowded districts with almost no empty land, needs to build schools wherever it can. Its most recent option for a school site, a spot on the old Tustin Marine base, proved too polluted to use.

The recall campaign rightly criticizes Lopez for the board's slowness in building new campuses, but it also wants to fault him for the board's recent steps to fix the problem.

Lopez must accept some of the blame for the strong opposition. He has badgered contractors for campaign contributions, then joined board members giving big contracts to those contributors, a process that slowed school construction and led the district to miss a round of state funding. And his vociferous support for bilingual education works against the progress of many of Santa Ana's low-achieving students.

The most serious controversies involving Lopez are those outside his schools role. He was an officer of Citizens in Action, a community group that paid the federal government nearly $640,000 to settle a legal dispute over how it used money for English classes for immigrants. The state Department of Education is suing Lopez and another organization he leads, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, for allegedly diverting adult education funds.

But a recall should be reserved for serious, proven malfeasance in office, such as lawbreaking, deliberate misuse of district funds or blatant negligence that drives a public agency into crisis. None of these have been proven against Lopez. And for all its troubles, the Santa Ana school district has made progress. It's moving to build campuses more quickly, has created more of its successful fundamental schools and
brought the prestigious Orange County High School of the Arts to town. The district's recent innovations include a dual-language immersion school in science and the arts, and an extra year of specialized help for students who flounder in kindergarten.

Voters might ultimately decide there are better leaders for the district. But this tainted recall effort, backed by at least $100,000 from outside the district, isn't the way to make that decision.